Twelve-year-old Hugo Cabret lives inside the walls of Gare Montparnasse, a busy Paris train station. Trained by his uncle and guardian to keep the sta...moreTwelve-year-old Hugo Cabret lives inside the walls of Gare Montparnasse, a busy Paris train station. Trained by his uncle and guardian to keep the station clocks running, Hugo creeps stealthily through the vents and air shafts. Hugo’s very existence is a well-kept secret. Even the stationmaster doesn’t know Hugo’s uncle has been missing for three months. Hugo lives in the small apartment at the station that he shared with his uncle. His uncle’s paychecks are piling up because Hugo doesn’t know how to cash them. He survives by scavenging food from the trash bins and stealing from the food vendors in the station. Hugo’s only personal possession is a broken mechanical man, bent over a writing desk and prepared to deliver what Hugo is certain will be a message from his father. His life is framed by loneliness, hunger and a burning desire to repair the automaton. Hugo’s father, a museum curator, discovered the automaton buried in corner of the museum attic. He often spent hours after his shift tinkering with the gears and other mechanical parts and documenting his efforts in notebooks. The night the museum burned, Hugo’s father was hard at work in the attic. The fire consumed everything, and Hugo became an orphan. Drawn to the scene of the fire that took his father’s life, Hugo discovers the automaton hidden in the ashes, scorched and more broken than ever. He lugs the mechanical man back to his uncle’s apartment and, using his father’s one surviving notebook, resumes the work his father died trying to complete. One of the shops in the train station belongs to a toymaker. The parts in his wind-up toys fit the mechanical man perfectly. Hugo watches the bitter old man and his bookish daughter carefully, occasionally stealing toys for parts. Isabelle, the toymaker’s daughter, has been watching Hugo just as Hugo has been watching her. Intrigued by the boy in the walls, Isabelle pushes her way through his defenses and befriends him. Together, they bring the automaton to life. The mechanical man does not pen a secret message from Hugo’s father. Rather, he sketches a scene from Georges Méliès’ film, Le Voyage dans la lune. Méliès’ films were lost in World War I, many of them melted down for celluloid to be used in soldier’s boot heels. Méliès himself is believed to be dead. Hugo remembers that Le Voyage dans la lune was his father’s favorite film. Isabelle’s papa’s reaction to the sketch raises still more questions. For the first time, Hugo wonders if the toymaker’s parts fit the automation by coincidence only. Brian Selznick has crafted a fascinating mystery based on the true story of innovative French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Each twist is revealed carefully, the shadows drawn away from the truth piece by agonizing piece until the story is fully told. The illustrations in this book are beautiful and amazingly detailed. Rendered in charcoal, Selznick’s use of shadows lends an added air of mystery to the story. Each of the 300+ illustrations covers a two-page spread and serves to move the story forward without text. The most striking illustrations are in series that cover eight or ten pages. Selznick shifts the frame of each illustration in the series, tightening up the focus or broadening the frame to give his readers the feel of watching the scene through the lens of a camera. I was completely captivated by the world of Hugo Cabret. The Invention of Hugo Cabret provided the perfect antidote to my post Harry Potter blues this summer. Selznick has joined the ranks of writers such as Lemony Snicket, J.K. Rowling and Marcus Zusak who have proven that juvenile literature isn’t just for kids. (less)
Sixteen year old Sarah Langstrom’s life shatters once again in the pre-dawn hours of a typical Saturday morning. The man she calls “The Stranger” has...moreSixteen year old Sarah Langstrom’s life shatters once again in the pre-dawn hours of a typical Saturday morning. The man she calls “The Stranger” has returned, slaying her latest foster family with a horrifying, grisly brutality that is all too familiar for Sarah. Pushed beyond her ability to cope, Sarah puts a gun to her head and demands to see Special Agent Smokey Barrett, head of the FBI’s violent crimes unit in Los Angeles. Barrett is no stranger to violence. She and her team rub shoulders with the worst of L.A.’s dark underbelly daily. They are the best at what they do. But Barrett’s understanding of the darkness goes much deeper than anything she learned at the FBI academy. For Smoky, it’s personal. It’s been a little more than a year since her own husband and daughter were taken from her by a violent serial killer. The same man brutally injured Smoky, leaving her face and body scarred and her spirit broken. Smoky understands Sarah on a gut level. But more importantly, Smoky believes her. Sarah gives Smoky her diary, which chronicles her lifelong encounters with The Stranger, beginning with her parents’ murder. The Stranger killed Sarah’s parents in front of her when she was only six, meticulously staging the killing to look like a domestic murder-suicide. Police investigating the tragedy dismissed the little girl’s description of a bad man who made mommy hurt daddy, because there was no forensic evidence pointing to an intruder. Over the next few years, tragedy dogs Sarah’s footsteps. She bounces from uncaring and sometimes abusive foster homes to an awful group home. As long as she’s placed in miserable surroundings, The Stranger is nothing more than a shadow in her background. When she finds comfort and security with a loving foster family, he strikes again, ripping away her happiness like an old band aid and leaving behind thick, tough scar tissue of hopelessness, isolation and mistrust. The Stranger thinks of himself as an artist. Sarah is to be his greatest work of art, a sort of living sculpture he calls, “A Ruined Life.” Each new death is designed to teach her a lesson. Her spirit dies a little more with each hardship she encounters. For Smoky and her team, the chase is on. They backtrack through the cases described in Sarah’s diary, picking up The Stranger’s scent from the tiniest of leads. With each new discovery, the case becomes more convoluted. With each dead end, the stakes grow higher. The Stranger is moving them all toward an endgame that could spell disaster for Sarah and everyone around her. In The Face of Death, author Cody McFayden takes a tried-and-true formula – the tough-as-nails female agent and her wisecracking team who hunt the monsters that live on the edges of our nightmares – and gives it a fresh spin. McFayden has created a fascinating heroine in Smoky Barrett. Barrett is a fighter – tough, smart, caring, and fearless. She is also broken, struggling daily to carry on beneath the weight of her losses.
The Face of Death is great suspense fiction. This book demands to be consumed. The pages all but turn themselves. But the beauty is in the details. McFayden pens descriptions of terrible events with delicate grace and a keen understanding of human nature. The story is by turns horrifying and heartbreaking, often in the same paragraph. The Face of Death is Smoky’s sophomore outing – be sure to read Shadow Man first. I am on the edge of my seat hoping there will be more! (less)
Andrew Strickland is a somewhat unfocused art history student at Cambridge University. His work is rather lackadaisical, drawing heavily on his source...moreAndrew Strickland is a somewhat unfocused art history student at Cambridge University. His work is rather lackadaisical, drawing heavily on his source material without coming to many original conclusions. He prefers to spend his days drinking with friends and has given little thought to his thesis. After all, it’s not due for a year. Everything changes when Andrew’s mentor, Professor Leonard, assigns him to a special summer project. The owner of a famous memorial garden in Tuscany has requested that Professor Leonard find someone to write a scholarly monograph exploring the symbolism in the garden. Andrew accepts the assignment, hoping he’s on the track of a good thesis. The Docci garden, dedicated to the memory of a fifteenth century nobleman’s young wife, is peaceful, secluded and filled with classical symbols. Previous scholars have drawn parallels between the garden’s statuary and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As Andrew delves into the garden’s meandering paths and shadowy grotto, however, he comes to suspect that the hidden meaning is much more sinister. Could it be that the garden serves as much more than a memorial to a tragically deceased young woman? Is it possible that the carefully chosen references and precisely placed ornaments describe the method and motive of her murder? Do the clues in the garden point to the identity of her murderer? Signora Docci is the matriarch of the Docci family. She resides in the family villa, built shortly before the death of the nobleman’s wife. She is the keeper of the family history, leading Andrew gently towards the truth and doling out information in tantalizingly small morsels. Andrew’s investigation into centuries-old events unearths a much fresher murder hidden in the shadows of the Docci villa. Signora Docci’s eldest son, Emilio, was murdered by Nazis on the third floor of the villa during the final days of German occupation. The rooms, sealed off by Signore Docci, are frozen in time. They forever provide a precise snapshot of the rooms as they were the evening of Emilio’s murder. After Signore Docci’s death, Signora Docci abided by his wishes, keeping the rooms under lock and key. Like the garden, the untouched rooms contain clues – clues that might lead an inquisitive mind to wonder who really killed Emilio, and why. In The Savage Garden, Mark Mills has created a fascinating and conflicted world. The beauty of the garden, the villa and the Tuscan countryside belies the brutality that lies just beneath the surface. Blood spilled, whether it was 400 years ago or in recent memory, will have its voice. Mills masterfully reveals each piece of the puzzle, drawing his readers along at an almost leisurely pace. The story reads like a lazy summer afternoon – each new clue is discovered in its own time. Yet the murders add an urgent undercurrent to the narrative, pulling the readers forward until all is understood. I enjoyed this novel. It was a change of pace from the suspense fiction I read so often. The Savage Garden forced me to slow down. The beautiful descriptions, intriguing mystery and references to classical literature demanded that this story be savored rather than devoured. Mills’ vivid descriptions brought his people and places to life, allowing me to completely lose myself in his story each time I opened the book. I can’t think of a better way to spend a long, hot summer afternoon!
(Review published in the Burlington Times-News, 7/22/2007)(less)
As a child, Chastity Lambkin could “find” almost anything; a mislaid book, lost change, missing keys – all she had to do was concentrate on the item a...moreAs a child, Chastity Lambkin could “find” almost anything; a mislaid book, lost change, missing keys – all she had to do was concentrate on the item and wait for the last two fingers of her left hand to tingle. The day Chastity’s mother’s empty rowboat drifted ashore, Chastity stopped finding things forever. She dared not find the thing she missed most, so she couldn’t find anything at all. Years later, 52-year old Chastity (now called “Calamity”) rediscovers her long-gone talent in the unlikeliest of ways and places. During her father’s funeral, the pin holding up Calamity’s supervisor’s underpants falls off, sending said bloomers to the ground in a moment of belly-aching hilarity. When the dust settles, Calamity finds the pin on the ground beside her feet and slips it into her pocket. Later she realizes that it’s the monogram pin given to her by her mother and lost many, many years before. She connects the tingling in her hand to the found object in her pocket. The pin, it seems, is the beginning of something. Over the next few days, Calamity’s hand tingles several times, accompanied by a hot flash and the reappearance of some long-lost object – her daughter’s favorite teddy bear, Calamity’s beloved childhood books, her toy dump truck, her missing hairbrush, her father’s cashew grove, lost in a hurricane that destroyed the island they called home, and a boy; a toddler washed up on the shore after a stormy night. The boy is certainly Calamity’s strangest “find.” He babbles, but not in any language recognized by Calamity, her neighbors or the authorities. His fingers are webbed together. His ropy hair is matted and braided with seashells. He has rough patches on the insides of his knees that stick together like Velcro when they touch. Calamity takes the boy, who she calls “Agway,” into her home, agreeing to care for him until his parents can be located. As she cares for Agway, delving into his mystery, she is forced to reconsider much in her life, including the truth of her own mother’s disappearance. Hopkinson has crafted an unflinchingly honest tale of a woman at a crossroads in her life. Calamity isn’t always likeable. She’s gruff and unforgiving, unable to let go of past disappointments. She shrugs off the trappings of family, insisting that her daughter and grandson address her by her first name. She is stubborn, strong-willed and, sometimes, emotionally immature. But that’s just one side of the coin. Calamity is, in many ways, a force of nature. She’s as moody as the sea she loves, and as solid as the trunk of the almond tree that reappears outside her bedroom window. She is fiercely devoted to the people in her life and oh, so human. Calamity’s daughter, Ifeoma, is another great character. She’s her mother’s daughter in many ways, but with softer edges. Like her mother, she is facing big changes in her life. Like her mother, she is navigating those tumultuous seas with strength and courage. The cadence of this novel is as soothing as the sound of the surf. Hopkinson uses West Indian dialect, fables and folktales to cast a spell over her readers. From the first page, she transports her readers to a place that seems almost magical. Time moves in a different rhythm, ebbing with the tides. Past and present exist alongside one another, and the line between fiction and fact is nearly nonexistent. The New Moon’s Arms is absolutely mesmerizing. I finished the last page sadly and closed the book reluctantly, unwilling to leave the roughly beautiful world I’d inhabited so comfortably for several days.
(review published in the Burlington Times-News, 4/29/2007)(less)
Liz Dunn is lonely. She’s overweight and bitter, with a nondescript office job and absolutely no one in her life except her mother and siblings. Her f...moreLiz Dunn is lonely. She’s overweight and bitter, with a nondescript office job and absolutely no one in her life except her mother and siblings. Her future stretches ahead, each day no different than the last, each year no different than the one before. The story begins in the summer of 1997. Hale-Bopp comet streaks across the Canadian skies, and Liz comes to a realization. From that moment forward, Liz decides to go with the flow. No more trying to control everything. All she wants from life is peace. She heads for home with a lighter heart and absolutely no idea that her world is about to turn upside down. Everything changes with one phone call. A young man has turned up in the local hospital wearing an id bracelet with her name and phone number inscribed on it. She is his “in case of emergency, contact.” Jeremy Buck is an unusual young man. He’s beautiful, charming and funny. He has visions of the end of the world. He is the son Liz gave up for adoption over twenty years before – the product of a class trip to Rome. Jeremy has multiple sclerosis. He is dying. Liz opens her heart and her home to her ailing son, determined to make the most of the time they have left. She learns that even the most simple things in life – dinner, watching a favorite television show, shopping – are more enjoyable when shared with someone else. Jeremy’s visions intrigue Liz. They are horrifying, beautiful and poetic. Liz saves them all – little scraps of paper she finds scattered around the apartment – tiny windows into Jeremy’s world. When Jeremy becomes to sick to write them down, she records what he says. It’s something solid to hold on to, to prove that he passed through her life. When Jeremy dies, Liz is devastated. Having tasted life with another person, she is unwilling to return to her bleak existence, but unsure how to move forward. Her life takes another unexpected turn when Jeremy’s father resurfaces. Propped up by courage gleaned from her experience with Jeremy, Liz travels to Vienna to face her past and finally finds hope for the future. I have been a fan of Douglas Coupland’s books since he published Generation X in 1991. His work is by turns haunting, funny, heartbreaking and irreverent. He has been labeled by critics “the spokesperson of Generation X,” but has resisted the title, claiming he speaks only for himself, not for an entire generation. His loyal readers disagree. Pop culture is the backbone of Coupland’s books. His references to things, places and events work together to create an incredibly strong sense of time and place. Girlfriend in a Coma is Vancouver in the 80’s and 90’s. Hey Nostradamus brings to life the horror of a school shooting similar to Columbine and takes a long hard look at the lives of the people left behind. Liz’s reminiscences in Eleanor Rigby evoke a perfectly typical 1970’s childhood. Those of us who fall into the “Gen X” group (born between 1965 and 1980) always find familiar landmarks in the pages of his books. Coupland’s greatest gift as a writer is that he “gets” people. He has an uncanny ability to crawl inside his character’s skin, dragging his readers along for the ride. His characters aren’t always likeable or glamorous, but they are always, always completely human. Dialogue rolls off the page in crisp sound bytes packed with wry humor and witty banter. Eleanor Rigby (yes, he did get the name from the Beatles’ song) is perhaps Coupland’s best book to date. He has matured as a writer. The acerbic wit of the early 1990’s has softened a bit – he is considering life from the other side of forty now, and seems to have a deeper understanding of the boomers he so ruthlessly impugned in Generation X. Coupland’s observations of modern culture are crystal-clear as ever, but his voice is wiser.
(Review published in the Burlington Times-News, Sunday, March 27, 2005)(less)