Author: J. K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5
Many of us consider the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry a second home, and one close to the heart at that. But there are secrets to this amazing school that have remained hidden for years. Some are shrouded in legend. Others are so mundane as to have escaped notice. In this guide, you may find a few of these mysteries unveiled . . . though most assuredly not all of them.
Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide is a collection of short writings by Rowling, most if not all of which were originally featured on the Pottermore website but which are here brought together in a slightly more organized selection. The topics discussed here range from the origins of the Hogwarts Express to the ghosts who haunt the halls of the school to the location of the Hufflepuff common room. I wouldn’t call any of the content “short stories” per se–more like a combination of descriptions and origin stories paired with Rowling’s discussions on the stories behind these topics, where she got her ideas, that sort of thing. It’s a bit of an unusual collection, but as it’s told in Rowling’s ever enchanting voice, this small volume is still quite a charming read, especially for Potterheads like myself. My one regret is that the collection is not more extensive, but I would still definitely recommend Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide as an enjoyable little addition to your Harry Potter collection.
Note: As far as I know, this volume is only available as an e-book.
Author: Charles de Lint
My rating: 4 of 5
Grace has always followed her own path–or followed in her Abuelo’s in any case–what with her tattoos and rockabilly and her passion for hot-rodding old cars. Not what her mother would have wanted for her, perhaps, but it suits Grace just fine. Well, it did, until she happened to get herself killed–wrong place, wrong time. Which is when she found that those who die in said place, in the few blocks around the Alverson Arms apartment building, don’t move on like they’re supposed to. They become trapped in this strange afterlife world consisting of those few blocks. But unlike most of the people in this Alverson Arms world, Grace isn’t content to just “sleep” or fall into an endless routine. Especially after she goes back to the world of the living on Halloween–one of two nights each year when the boundaries are thinnest–and meets (and falls badly for) John, just a couple weeks too late.
I firmly believe that Charles de Lint is one of the best writers of urban fantasy out there, and I would highly recommend any of his books. The Mystery of Grace is no exception. It carries the feel and mechanics of his Newford books, but places the story in the Southwest–and he does a great job of incorporating the people, the culture, and the feel of that area into the story seamlessly. The whole concept of the story is really interesting, also, as is the way in which the reader gradually finds out more about what’s really going on. I really enjoyed the characters, especially Grace–and it wasn’t so much that I especially liked her, although I did, as just that she was so much herself, so complete and complex a character, that she was a joy to read. I really appreciated all the detail that de Lint casually scattered in to enhance her character. John was interesting as well, although I didn’t enjoy his chapters nearly as much as I enjoyed Grace’s. I did like the way the chapters switched perspectives back and forth though. And I loved that, while this is an a sense a “love story,” it wasn’t a mushy romance at all–it’s not chick-flick-y at all. What it is is unique and passionate and creative and thought-provoking and slightly creepy at parts. I would definitely recommend The Mystery of Grace, especially to those who like a good urban fantasy or ghost story.
Authors: Tom & Nimue Brown
Illustrator: Tom Brown
Hopeless, Maine, vol. 1
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Hopeless . . . both a place and a state of being on this cursed island off the coast of Maine. It is a place where the sun never shines, a place that invites demons–both metaphorical and actual. Salamandra is found alone (apart from the creepies) in a huge gothic house. Not a place to leave a child, so she is brought to an orphanage where she fits in not one bit. In her friendless state, she is approached by a smiling girl . . . whom no one else can see.
Personal Demons is not your typical graphic novel, that’s for sure. It’s more atmospheric rather than action oriented. And the atmosphere is done brilliantly. The whole setting is this eerie, dark gothic island inhabited not just by people but by all sorts of oddities that appear inspired by Hieronymus Bosch himself. The art is beautiful but atypical. (I believe this started as a webcomic, and there’s the freedom and individuality of style to this graphic novel that you would expect in a high-quality webcomic.) It’s done almost entirely in a dark monochromatic palette, barring a few flashes of brilliant color to emphasize the presence of magic (and yes, there’s definitely magic in this story). For the art, the concept, and the actualization of the concept I would have to give this book a 5 out of 5 rating. Where it fell flat for me, personally, was in the story itself. I didn’t fall in love with the characters, and the plot was not particularly original . . . thus the 3.5 instead of 5 stars. Still, Personal Demons is definitely an interesting graphic novel if only for the originality of the concept and the art–well worth giving it a try.
Author/Illustrator: Raina Telgemeier
Colors: Braden Lamb
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Cat’s family is moving from the warmth and sun of southern California to the fog and chill of the northern coast, specifically a small old town named Bahía de la Luna. The doctors say it will be better for Cat’s little sister Maya there, that the coolness and moisture will make her cystic fibrosis easier to handle. Maybe so, but Cat’s still not happy about the move . . . or about all the ghost legends that seem to be emphasized throughout the town.
I love Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels; they’re so full of life and fun, yet they deal with real, tough stuff as well. Ghosts is no exception, that’s for sure. It’s a real ghost story, but not so much a scary one. Rather, this book pulls heavily on traditions such as Día de los Muertos in which the spirits of the dead are friendly and welcome instead of haunting and scary. Not that Cat doesn’t have her share of scares along the way to realizing this. Cat’s part of the story is great in that it deals with very real-life fears–change, family illness, and death for a start. Because let’s face it, real life can be every bit as scary as ghosts, maybe even more so. Maya is the perfect balance for Cat’s uncertainty; however ill she may be, she’s full of life and spunk and energy. She’s just a great all-around character who’s lots of fun to read. I also really appreciated that the author chose to discuss cystic fibrosis and all the crazy stuff people who have it must handle on a daily basis. And of course, the art is classic Raina Telgemeier, so lots of fun there–I really loved all the Día de los Muertos influences and scenes in the art. Very cool. So yeah, basically Ghosts is a really great middle-grade graphic novel that I would highly recommend for readers 10 and up (including adults).
Author: Richard Peck
My rating: 4 of 5
Blossom Culp, vol. 4
The year is 1914, and Blossom and Alexander are in their freshman year of high school. Things are beginning to change–like the popular girls’ crushing on Alexander, his newfound obsession with getting into the elite high-school fraternity, or the new suffragette history teacher who’s bent on educating the freshmen about ancient Egypt. Some things never change though–like Blossom’s spunkiness, Alexander’s complete disavowal of his ability to interact with spirits, and Blossom’s mother’s sticky fingers. So when an ancient Egyptian relic turns up in Blossom’s mother’s pocket, naturally Blossom gets interested. And when the ghost (ka, whatever) of an ancient Egyptian princess demands Blossom’s help, well, of course she’s got to get Alexander involved, though she’ll have a time and a half dragging him away from the miseries of his fraternity initiation. Well, while she’s at it, she might as well make the initiation a bit more interesting, too. . . .
Richard Peck’s books are superb, and I think the ones set in Illinois and thereabouts around the turn of the century are some of the best. He has such a feel for the atmosphere of the time, making it alive rather than stuffy and historical. Plus, these are some of the most absurdly funny books I’ve ever read. Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death is all of that and more. Blossom has got to be one of the most amusing and lovable characters ever–while being someone who’d probably drive me nuts if I actually met her. Scruffy, saucy, and smart as can be–that’s Blossom. In this particular story, seeing her and Alexander growing up from children into young adults is really interesting and funny and kind of cute as well. The inclusion of spirits and historical (for Blossom as well as for the reader) mystery is classic for this series, but bringing in an Egyptian princess is something else. It works though, oddly enough. There’s enough historical detail to make it credible without feeling forced. And the combination of eerie mystery and absurd humor is perfect. For any readers upper elementary and older who enjoy a humorous historical story, Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death is definitely recommended whether you’ve read the other books in the series or not.
Author: Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Thirteen-year-old Jenny is anything but happy about her mother’s remarriage–to an Englishman, no less!–the acquisition of two new stepbrothers, and their move from New York City across the ocean to an old farm in Dorset, England. Not that she was happy about much at that point in her life, except maybe her beloved cat, Mister Cat. It didn’t help that Evan, Jenny’s new stepfather, was actually a really nice guy, one who tried to get along with her and make things work. And little could any of them expect the things they would encounter in Dorset once they arrived–ghosts and boggarts and the like–and Jenny would encounter more than the rest combined. Because it was at that old farm in Dorset that Jenny met Tamsin, a lonely girl who had been dead for hundreds of years and who would become one of Jenny’s closest friends.
I very much enjoyed Beagle’s classic story, The Last Unicorn, and so I was thrilled to find he had published other works, among them this enchanting story, Tamsin. In some ways, this book is similar to what I had read before–it’s a thoughtful fantasy that looks deeply into the thoughts and motives of its characters. But in that it is set in our own contemporary world, seen through the eyes of a young girl, it is very different. Jenny is a wonderful character, not because she’s so good, but because she’s so real. She says in the story that you forget what it’s like to be thirteen, because you have to in order to survive. It’s true, you know? But she’s so clear a picture of all the raw emotions and unsettledness of that age that you can remember, just for a few minutes. And I think it’s important to remember, just as it’s important to be able to forget and move on–and yes, I know that sentence doesn’t make sense at all, but it’s no less true for all that. The choices Jenny makes, the way she sees things, and the growth that occurs in her throughout the story are all a huge part of what makes this book so good. Added to that, you’ve got an excellent mix of the darker folklore and history of that area, come terrifyingly to life. This book is absolutely dark and scary. And it’s all the better for it. I would warn that this book, while about a thirteen-year-old, is not for thirteen-year-olds; it’s an adult book, that’s for sure. But for adult readers who enjoy a dark, thoughtful, but exciting fantasy, Tamsin is definitely recommended.
Author: Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4.5 of 5
On the outskirts of a small town just off the shores of Cape Cod sits a small house known to the locals as Blackbird House. Lovingly built by a fisherman–for his wife to live in while he went to sea–in the early days before our country was an actual country, the house has seen numerous inhabitants over the years. Each family has had its own story, and each story has left its own unique mark on the land and the house, connecting the lives lived there across the ages, memory upon memory.
Blackbird House is a welcome, although unexpected, collection of tales centering on a small cabin near the shore. I guess I ought to expect this sort of work from Alice Hoffman, but she still has the gift to surprise me–which is actually really nice. Every tale in this collection was enjoyable in its own right, and seeing the connections between them made them even more interesting. Not that there are particular thematic connections or anything that direct; there are all sorts of stories and characters here, everything from sweet, unexpected romances to heartbreaking tragedies to tales of ungrateful modern youth. No, the connections are more subtle than that, motifs that carry throughout: the sweet peas and the pond behind the house, the white blackbird that haunts the house, red shoes (a sure sign of witches!), that sort of thing. I loved the slice of history that’s presented here, ranging chronologically from early settlement days all the way to very recent years. Yet spun throughout the history is a feel of fairy tales that gives a different weight and experience to these stories, making them timeless in a unique and beautiful way. Blackbird House is definitely an adult collection, but for adult readers–whether your preference is historical fiction, short stories, or even fairy tales–I think this book has something unique and special to offer that is well worth reading.