SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: The Midnight Palace

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, translated by Lucia Graves; published by Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2011; 298 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: May 31, 2011.

It’s the 1930s, Calcutta.  This exotic locale is home to a psychological thriller that simmers beneath the surface then boils over in  scalding, terrifying bursts throughout the book.  Seven orphans (Isobel, Roshan, Siraj, Michael, Seth, Ben and Ian) became founding members of the Chowbar Society and met nightly at the Midnight Palace, a deserted former-mansion near St. Patrick’s orphange.  Seven children have pledged to see each other through their years in an orphanages as a surrogate family.  Although all have unique personalities and sometimes unsettling quirks, they stick together.  They share stories to get through boredom and sadness.  They solve mysteries, as when a fire nearly kills the orphanage director, Tom Carter.  When Sheere becomes the unofficial eighth member of the Chowbar Society, all hell seems to break loose.  A terrifying ghost train with a fiery specter begins to lurk near the children.  One or more lives are at stake as the inseparable team search for answers.  Will the Chowbar Society disband with seven or eight members?  Will any of them survive to see the Midnight Palace again?

The book is bookended with commentary by Ian, one of the characters.  It is through his adult eyes that we learn the story of the fiery apparition and the interconnections between some of the children.  Sometimes the adult Ian interjects with insight or commentary that helps clarify the storyline without clouding the story telling.  It’s an interesting plot device that works well.

As was the case in The Prince of Mist, Zafon has created a heart-pounding psychological thriller.  The two books share a common depth of description that pulls readers into the atmospheric ghost stories.  At several points, I found I had to set The Midnight Palace down to literally catch my breath because my pulse was racing.  The description of the terrifying presence is scary enough, but the moments when he jumps out at the protagonists was Hitchcockian jump-out-of-your-seat thrills.  Comparisons between the two books are inevitable.  Although similar, I think The Midnight Palace has a deeper story line and better developed characters.  Where the evil presence in The Prince of Mist sought a single soul to make restitution, the ghost in The Midnight Palace will stop at nothing in his quest for revenge against all wrongs done to him.

I think reluctant readers will be interested in this title.  No, it is not a rollicking adventure or a smoldering romance, but the storytelling and rich tapestry of words will capture the imagination of readers.  At less than 300 pages and with a fairly large typeface, The Midnight Palace is not an imposing book to crack open.  But once inside Ian’s memoir, I think teens, young adults and some adults will find it hard to put down until the back cover closes.  With summer reading approaching, this is a must-read for camp, vacation, or just at night in the dark with just a flashlight.

5P     4Q     Grade Level: 8-12+

Cover art: the fiery track, the apparition with its head down and the exotic palaces of Calcutta summarize the story in a fairly graphic portrayal of the storyline, without giving a lot away.  I don’t think it works very well as it doesn’t cry “ghost story” to me, and that would be a huge selling point to readers of the genre; especially for Zafon fans.  I definitely do not like it as well as the cover of The Prince of Mist.

From Reading List: On the Edge of Your Seat (Mystery, Suspense, Thriller), ARC (advance reading copy)

13 Treasures illuminates the dark side of fairies

13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison, inside illustrations by Kelly Louise Judd; published by Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2010; 353 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  The book was released in April 2010.

Tormenting Tanya seems to bring sadistic glee to a few fairies.  Unfortunately, when Tanya fights back, her mother only sees the 13 year old lashing out, destroying furniture and anything else around her.  Only Tanya can see the fairies.  In an effort to change the young lady’s attitude, her mother sends her to spend the summer at Grandmother Florence’s country home, Elvesden Manor.  The Essex estate abuts Hangman’s Woods, home to myth and legend and well-kept secrets.  With the help of the groundskeeper’s son, Fabian, the two unlock the secrets that have bound their families together for more than fifty years.  They’ll also uncover the war within the fairy realm that has waged for centuries.  If you think fairies look like Tinkerbell and visit little moss covered fairy houses in backyards, you’ve got another think coming!  Prepare to be educated in the ways of the fairies, which often spills silently into our own world!

I discovered this book under my daughter’s bed, just like Prince of Mist.  I’ve had the ARC to review for a year but it was secreted away for late night consumption.  I can thoroughly understand why.  This book was a treat to read, introducing a sometimes scary world of unseen forces.  Harrison’s storytelling is wonderful as she weaves myth and folklore into everyday life.  Although the publisher has indicated this book is recommended for readers aged 9-12, I would argue that older readers will enjoy the fairy story, especially readers like my daughter who prefers scary stories and fairy stories without graphic gore and other more mature content.  YALSA once created a list of “Books That Won’t Make You Blush” and this one belongs on a similar list.  So yes, this book will engross an upper elementary reader as well as high school students with an interest in the subject matter.

On another note, I appreciated the illustrations.  Judd’s pen-and-ink inspired imagery incorporates themes from the story in exquisite detail.  My ARC included what appear to be bookplate images at the beginning and end of the book; opening with a few innocuous fairies peering out from behind trees and ending with benign and frightening faces populating the landscape.  Throughout the book, each chapter is illuminated with an arch over the chapter number evoking the imagery from ancient texts and foreshadowing a piece of the story.  Along with the story, the illustrations hearken back to stories of an age gone by.

For more information about the book or author, and a game, visit the website: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/features/13treasures/index.html.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 5-9

Cover Art: Tanya is running through the gates into Hangman’s Woods as magic sparkles around her.  The image will appeal to readers interested in the genre.

From Reading List: On the Edge of Your Seat (Mystery, Suspense, Thriller), The Way It Could Be (Science Fiction or Fantasy)

 

The Prince of Mist is scary, atmospheric ghost story

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon; translated by Lucia Graves; published by Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2010; 200 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  The book was released in May 2010.

World War II has driven the Carver family from the city to a beautiful seaside village.  But from the moment he gets off the train, 13 year old Max knows that there is something unusual when the clock in the town square is running backward.  When he visits the creepy statue garden in the back of his new house, he’s convinced something evil lurks close by.  His sister Alicia, along with the lighthouse keeper’s grandson, Roland, help him find the truth behind the legend of the Prince of Mist.  What they discover will alter their lives forever.

I’ve had this book since late winter or early spring but forgot about it.  Why? It’s been hidden under my daughter’s bed.  It was too scary for her to read all at once since she’s a bedtime-only reader.   So she’d read a chapter or two then put it away when the story got too intense.  After I got into the story, I can fully understand why.  This book is fully loaded with  supernatural atmosphere and chilling suspense.  Some of the imagery, especially in the descriptions of the clown, will haunt long after the final page is turned.  The publisher did a wonderful job capturing the essence of the story in their video trailer.  Before reading the book, the essential elements of the story included in the trailer are merely intriguing.  After finishing, all the pieces serve to remind the reader of the depth of  the story telling.

Zafon attacks all of the reader’s senses in his descriptive passages.  I could almost feel the cold, evil mist on my neck.  The warm cinnamon rolls that Max picked up for Alicia still tickle my nose.  Even the tang of salt water left a taste on my tongue during the diving sequences.  Truly, Zafon (and Graves in her translation) is a master at setting the atmosphere of the story.  But don’t be fooled.  This isn’t only an atmosphere piece.  There is a very real plot that will keep reader’s guessing to the last page.  Additionally, the use of a creepy mist image throughout the book adds to the atmosphere befitting the best ghost stories.

The book has its own website (http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/features/princeofmist/index.html?intro=1) with links to resources like author information, book information and even an audio excerpt.  You can read an excerpt from the LB-Teens website (http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/teens_books_9780316044776.htm).

Reluctant readers should run to pick up this book–or rather, someone who cares about a reluctant reader should put this book into his or her hands.  It’s a short read (around 200 pages).  It’s full of descriptions that draw the reader into the story.  And it’s an amazing ghost story.  Sounds like the perfect blend for engaging reluctant readers.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 8-10

Cover Art: The ghostly mist superimposed over a view of the lighthouse surely lets us know it’s a ghost story.  That should be enough to get fans of gothic or ghost stories to pick up the book.

From Reading List: On the Edge of Your Seat (Mystery, Suspense, Thriller), ARC (advance reading copy)

SNEAK PEEK PREVIEW: You Killed Wesley Payne

You Killed Wesley Payne by Sean Beaudoin; published by Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2011; 360 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: February 2011.

The name’s Rev, Dalton Rev.  He’s a private dick, investigating the death of Salt River High student Wesley Payne.  Salt River is loaded with dames, racketeers, and tough guys.  “You killed Wesley Payne” is Rev’s greeting for suspects Jeff Chuff (quarterback), Kurt Tar0t (lead singer of Pinker Casket), and even members of the school staff.  Rev is also challenged to figure out the mysterious Macy Payne, Wesley’s sister who hired the private dick.  With other femme fatales, friends with names like “Mole,” and his own family drama, Dalton Rev has his hands full with this case.

Oh my Bob, it took me more than a week to get past the first few, or ten, chapters. When I spent, like, hours trying to figure out the Clique Index and Chart at the beginning of the book, my mind was set: This was going to be a difficult read. But then I re-read the jacket flap: “You Killed Wesley Payne is a truly original and darkly hilarious update of classic pulp noir….”   “Hmmm,” I thought.  “Maybe I’m overthinking this thing.”

Duh.

Once I let the humor and atmosphere trump the plot, I was hooked.  Immediately hooked.  I let the emotions, descriptions and teen-muddled noir references wash over me; and I got carried away.  Then, before I knew it, the plot unfolded, I was trying to figure out the mystery and was able to keep the characters straight without referring to the blasted clique list.  But don’t get me wrong.  The Clique Index is as important to telling the story as the Glossary and other extras included at the end of the book.  They help us figure out Dalton Rev, perhaps the biggest mystery of the book.

Those willing to let the words flow without thinking too hard about plot will be richly rewarded by this book.  If you’re a literal reader, strong on plot, allow yourself to be emotionally attached to the book and you won’t regret it.  Maybe Beaudoin will make this the first in a series, much like the Lexington Cole detective books that Dalton Rev collects.  I’d follow this hard-boiled detective through more cases.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 9-12

Cover art: The very retro look of black on silver is intriguing.  Even the avatar for Rev is interesting.  The cover art does reflect the noir atmosphere of the book.

From Reading List: ARC (advance reading copy), On the Edge of Your Seat (Mystery, Suspense, Thriller)

Treat yourself to Hamburger Halpin

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk; published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010; 248 pages.

High school is hard.  It’s hard to fit in and harder to stay “in” once you are in.  Take the tale of Will “Hamburger” Halpin.  He’s been an outsider ever since his hearing quietly faded into nothingness.  He learned how to lip-read and that would seem to be a superpower in the world of the school bus.  After a little battle about “normal” at his school for the hearing impaired, Will chooses to go mainstream at the local high school–local as in coal country Pennsylvania.  While riding the bus, he gets the back stories of many of his peers; who’s in the “in” crowd and who’s on the outs, the freaks, and geeks, and outsiders like himself.  After a disaster on a class field trip to the local mine, Hamburger Halpin and his new buddy “Smileyman” use their individual super-sleuthing powers to solve the crime.  They even find a way to solve a century-old family mystery and figure out a little bit about high school dynamics while they’re at it.

Nothing I can say can prepare you for this laugh-out-loud-but-sometimes-darkly-deep book.  If you’ve read Fat Kid Rules the World, you have a nodding acquaintance with Will Halpin as he has so much in common with Troy “Big T” Billings.  But where Troy’s world is edgy New York City, Will’s world is rural PA.  My overall impression is that these two books are read-alikes, with Berk’s story a little less urban than Going’s tale.

For a debut YA novel, Berk has hit a home run.  He has captured the humor and angst that teens face daily as they posture for position in an ever-changing social environment.  A little mystery, a lot of self-discovery, and a pinch of voyeurism make this an easy read, and a tale that just might stay with you for awhile.

On a personal note: YAY!  Josh Berk is the son of two librarians and is a librarian himself (according to information on his website and on the jacket flap).  Go, Librarians!  Keep using your superpowers!

4P     5Q     Grade Level 9-12+

Cover Art: Ah, to my big complaint.  One review I read before picking up this book led me to believe that this might be a good read for reluctant readers and middle schoolers.  After looking at the cover, I thought this book was more on the middle school reading level.  Then I read the book.  This is definitely a book for high schoolers who will best relate to the characters, situations and political innuendo (OK, I’m referring to the casino issue and the Chambers family).  So who approved the cover of this book?  It may turn off the right readers and appeal to the wrong ones.  As Ranganathan said, “Every book its reader;” this cover may prohibit that from happening.

From Reading List: Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA), nominee 2010

Shift gears or consciousness?

Shift by Jennfier Bradbury; published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2008; 245 pages.

Chris Collins’ life changed in third grade, when Winston “Win” Coggans’ family moved to town and the teacher sat them side-by-side.  They’d been “Chrisandwin” since then.  Fastforward nine years and it’s high school graduation time.  In an effort to avoid a summer job, Chris tells his parents that he and Win are riding their bikes from West Virginia to Seattle, to Win’s uncle, then they’ll catch a bus back home for their first days at college.  Then the shift begins.  Chris, tired of being half of a duo wants more independence from Win.  Win also needs independence, but more from his family than his friend.  At the end of the roadtrip, there is only Chris, ditched by Win.  When he returns to West Virginia, he doesn’t tell anyone where Win is; he doesn’t really know.  An FBI agent follows Chris to college and dogs him about Win.  Is Win dead?  Where is the nearly $20,000 Win took out of the bank?  Simply put, where is Win and what happened to him?  Chris and Win both shift as the book comes to its close; this mystery is solved and its resolution is completely satisfying.

Bradbury’s debut novel is a well-written mystery which explores the obvious “where’s Win?” plotline, but also endeavors to unearth the mystery of coming of age for these boys of diverse backgrounds.  Enough hints are dropped throughout the novel to figure out what really happened well before Chris figures it out, but that’s okay.  I got as much satisfaction from witnessing Chris’ elucidation as I did in figuring out where Win was.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the places the boys visited along their trek as much as the story of their maturation.

The tire marks on the first page of every chapter was an interesting gimmick for about half of the book then I grew tired of it.  The book stands on its own without needing gimmicks, but perhaps teens would view that differently.  I think the book appeals to boys, certainly, because of the independence and adventure of their journey.  But I think that the story would appeal to girls as well.  In my 20s, my future sister-in-law and I bandied about the idea of dropping out, jumping in (the car), and crossing the country to read every single historical marker we ran across.  Never happened; wish it had.  This story is for everyone who, like Chris’ dad, every had that dream.  When is the movie coming out?  I can’t wait for the scenery for the travel bits, if nothing else!

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 8-12

shiftCover Art: The yellow certainly appeals to teens as should the bike graphic and shifted lettering of the title.  On closer inspection, there are footprints walking away from the bike and the long shadow of that person abandoning the ride.  The mysterious tagline on the cover also generates interest for teens: “Some friends fade away….Others disappear.”  Oooh, set the hook, they’re on the line.  Anyway, the black and yellow graphic spine and white lettering stood out on the shelves as well.

From Reading List: On the Edge of Your Seat (Mystery, Suspense, Thriller)

Puns and wordplay and wit, oh my! It’s the Westing Game

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin; published by Scholastic, Inc., New York, 1978; 216 pages.

“Uncle Sam” Westing is a powerful man in Westingtown, having built the city through his paper product industriousness.  Now, through his henchman Barney Northrup, he has called together 16 potential heirs to live in his apartment complex,  Sunset Towers, which overlooks Lake Michigan and his mansion.  Shortly after the novel opens, Westing is found dead and the 16 diverse individuals are called in for the reading of the will and ultimately are challenged to a puzzle-solving game in order to win the inheritance.  Should they work in small teams or as a group?  What do the incongruous word clues represent?  What does this socio-economically and racially diverse group have in common?  Readers must pay close attention to the words in this novel–nothing is as it seems and names can be dramatic clues necessary for solving the mystery.

Raskin’s puzzle-mystery won the Newbery Medal in 1979.  The brilliant use of puns, wordplay and wit challenges readers to pay attention to details.  Without being blatant,  Raskin is able to challenge readers to solve the mystery of the Westing heir.  The edition I read included book club questions and activities–what a treasure for librarians!

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 6-8

TheWestingGameCover Art: Fireworks erupting from the chimney of a mansion made of money may be slightly interesting to teens, especially since they are printed on a black background and the title is in red.  Combining the image with the title, however, makes the cover more appealing.  I think this cover would get attention and the red type on a black spine helps the book stand out on the shelves.

Suggested Reading List: On the Edge of Your Seat (Mystery, Suspense, Thriller)

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