“The driveway leading to the family home wound its way through a thick forest of tall hardwoods and then a large rolling field. Golden bales of freshl...more“The driveway leading to the family home wound its way through a thick forest of tall hardwoods and then a large rolling field. Golden bales of freshly cut hay peppered the landscape. On both sides of the road, a low-stacked stone wall corralled the vehicle as it sped toward the large brick Victorian resting at the edge of the pasture.” - from Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave
Letterford & Sons might not be the largest publishing house in the world, but it is widely considered to be the most prestigious. For over four hundred years the firm has passed from eldest son to eldest son, owned and controlled by one Letterford for the benefit of the entire family. The affable and scholarly Mull Letterford runs the firm currently and, though Mull is dedicated to the business and very good at what he does, the firm has recently been plagued by a series of bizarre accidents and unforeseen events which have threatened the bottom line. Now a distant cousin is launching a hostile takeover and Mull could lose control of the grand old firm forever.
Enter Mull's twelve-year-old daughter, Colophon. Exceedingly bright for her age and blessed with a mind for puzzles, Colophon is determined to keep her father where he belongs, at the head of Letterford & Sons. When her father's eccentric cousin Julian tells Colophon the tale of a long hidden family treasure, she decides to help him find it. A treasure will make it possible for her father to buy out the rest of the family and keep the publishing house in his hands. For his part, Julian is just odd enough to welcome the help of a mere school girl. He cares little for the value of the treasure, he just wants to prove that it exists. But dark forces are aligning against the mismatched duo - can they complete their quest before it's too late?
I've read a few critical reviews of this charming novel and I'll admit they have me puzzled. Some have said that it's unreasonable to believe that a mere girl could succeed where generations of her family's grown men have failed. Does Colophon unravel clues that have stumped adults for hundreds of years? Yes, of course she does. That's what happens in most middle grade mysteries. Nancy Drew, for instance, routinely proved more clever than the entire River Heights police force. What matters is that Colophon is likable, intelligent and devoted to her family - in short, a worthy successor to the likes of Nancy and Trixie Belden.
The characters are certainly a highlight here: Colophon, her studious father and sometimes jerky older brother (that pair have some hilarious adventures of their own), the disheveled Cousin Julian and the delightfully sinister Treemont . They all contribute to the mystery's clever plot. The real stars here, however, are the wonderful settings. From Le Mont Saint Michel in the prologue to the Letterford's grand ancestral London home in the ultimate chapter, every scene is lovingly described and brought to glorious life by Hicks' lively prose. The language is rich and always exactly right at all times and the quirky illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer enhance the story at every turn.
I thoroughly enjoyed this, the first book of the Letterford Mysteries and I await future installments in happy anticipation.(less)
On a world endless galaxies away, the peaceful realm of the Valorim and the Ethelim is under attack, falling to the great betrayer, Lord Mondus. Backe...moreOn a world endless galaxies away, the peaceful realm of the Valorim and the Ethelim is under attack, falling to the great betrayer, Lord Mondus. Backed by the Faceless O'Mondim and surrounded by the Faithless, Mondus is in the last stages of his coup - the destruction of the gentle Valorim and all they hold dear. It is in these last desperate moments that Young Waeglim, Master of the Forge, fashions the Art of the Valorim into a single chain and sends it out into the universe, thereby preventing it's capture and misuse by the evil conqueror. Once the chain leaves the ravaged world behind, it flies past stars and great empty spaces until it comes to a smallish, wheeling galaxy and, circling a star on the edge of that galaxy, a blue planet. There, on that planet, the chain comes to rest, slipping quietly into the Ace Robotroid Adventure lunch box owned and despised by twelve-year-old Tommy Pepper.
If Tommy doesn't notice the chain right away, well, he has his reasons. For one thing, its his birthday, the first he has celebrated since his mother died two hundred and fifty-seven days ago in a car accident Tommy is pretty sure he caused. Now his little sister no longer speaks, his father is sad and distracted and a local real estate agency is trying to take away the Peppers' home.
It might have taken Tommy a while to notice the chain, but even with everything that is going on in his life it would be hard for him to miss the frightening and alien minions of Lord Mondus who are intent on claiming the chain and the Art for their overlord. Soon Tommy will have to defend his home, family and friends from a danger he doesn't fully understand using a power he doesn't know he has.
Only the brilliant Gary D. Schmidt could have written this book. Essentially, What Came From the Stars is comprised of three intertwined plots: the story of the Pepper family and their struggle to come to terms with the terrible tragedy that has befallen them; the tale of the Valorim's fall & the rise of the Ethelim (told in alternating chapters); and the narrative that brings those two plot lines together - how Tommy Pepper found the Art and defended it from those who would use it for evil. Like all of Schmidt's novels, What Came From the Stars is beautifully written, honest and faithful to the lives and emotions of its young characters.. Schmidt does an especially good job with Tommy Pepper, whose grief and guilt are both wholly believable. This novel is sometimes poignant and sometimes outright funny, but always compulsively readable.
I do have one reservation about this book - just a small one. The alternating chapters dealing with the struggles on the Valorim Home World are intricate and often complex and are filled with an alien language (a glossary is provided). Impatient readers and those that struggle with high fantasy might find these sections to be a bit of a chore. Still, everyone else should love What Came From the Stars.
P.S. If you've never read Gary D. Schmidt before, you don't know what you're missing. I recommend The Wednesday Wars, Okay For Now and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.(less)
If you’re like me, you’ve avoided reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. The idea of the novel seems positively laughable, a cheeky piece of gimickr...moreIf you’re like me, you’ve avoided reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. The idea of the novel seems positively laughable, a cheeky piece of gimickry designed to cash in on the vampire craze. I once thought the same thing and I could not have been more wrong. This is a brilliant bit of fiction, darkly thrilling and completely engrossing. Waiting so long to read it was one of my bigger book mistakes - thank goodness I read it before I saw the absolutely terrible film. The movie shares the title, but it’s significantly different from the book and not in a good way, either.
Had Thomas Lincoln been a man of a more stalwart nature, his son might never have become the sixteenth President of the United States. Thomas, however, was neither ambitious nor stalwart and he did nothing to prevent his wife’s death at the hands of a vampire money lender. Indeed, as Mr. Grahame-Smith indicates, it could be argued that Thomas virtually handed his wife over to the vampire who killed her. It was this, his mother’s death and his father’s failure to protect her, that led Abraham Lincoln to a career as a vampire hunter. And it was this singular career that propelled him into his extraordinary life in politics. Without vampires, or more correctly, without his abiding hatred of them, Mr. Lincoln might have remained a humble midwest farmer or a small town lawyer. But with the vampire menace threatening the very fabric of a blissfully ignorant nation, Abraham Lincoln rose to become the greatest President America has ever known.
There are so many ways this novel could have failed, could have been reduced to a one-line joke. It is a testament to Mr. Grahame-Smith’s skill and imagination that Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter not only does not fail, it succeeds brilliantly and on every level. At it’s core, this novel is a better than average biography of the President, albeit with some fangy extras thrown in. It is entirely due to the author’s extensive research, inventive plot and not inconsiderable skill with the written word that - were it not for the the implausibility of vampires - it would be very difficult to separate fact from fiction in this outstanding novel. Don’t make the same mistakes I did: read Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter as soon as you can, but don’t waste your money on the movie.(less)
When Niki Burnham’s royal trilogy ended, Val was happily reunited with Prince Georg, Christie and her boyfriend Jeremy were past their rough patch and...more When Niki Burnham’s royal trilogy ended, Val was happily reunited with Prince Georg, Christie and her boyfriend Jeremy were past their rough patch and going strong, and Nat had just had a killer first date with PFLAG John at the annual Oscar party. And Jules? Well Jules was still her independence-minded, boyfriend-free-and-loving-it self. But the love bug is about to dig its teeth into Jules, right through her ass-kicking combat boots. Told completely in e-mails, Reality Check is a short story revealing exactly how crazy love can make the indomitable Jules Jackson.(less)
It’s been five years since Christopher Creed disappeared, four since Torey Adams launched his website, ChrisCreed.com, in an attempt to make sense of...more It’s been five years since Christopher Creed disappeared, four since Torey Adams launched his website, ChrisCreed.com, in an attempt to make sense of the the way his classmate vanished into thin air. Five years - and not a single, solitary trace of Chris Creed has ever been found. Then Torey posts a new message on his website: a body has been discovered in the woods outside of Steepleton.
Mike Mavic, a legally blind college reporter who sees more than most, has been a huge fan of ChrisCreed.com from the beginning. Chris’s story, told with both sympathy and honesty by Adams, is not so very different from his own - right down to the domineering and obsessively controlling mother. When he reads Torey’s latest post, Mike knows he has to get to Steepleton. Here is his chance to uncover a story that could well and truly launch his career as a journalist. More than that, he can face his own demons - but do it from a step removed by telling Chris Creed’s tale instead of his own. Determined to get to the root of the Creed disappearance, Mike sells his laptop and buys a plane ticket for New Jersey.
When he arrives in town, Mike learns two things right away. The first is that the body in the woods is not Christopher Creed’s, but that doesn’t necessarily kill his story. Because the second thing Mike discovers is that Steepleton has been living under a cloud of bad luck and ill feelings ever since Creed disappeared. To the current crop of high school kids, Chris Creed’s vanishing act is just another local legend - something from the past that doesn’t mean anything important to them, with one exception. Chris Creed’s brother Justin, now a high school student himself, has recently become obsessed with his brother’s vanishing act. Deeply troubled and falling quickly into drug addiction, Justin teeters on the edge of mental catastrophe. As he travels about Steepleton completing his interviews, Mike struggles to hang on to his journalistic objectivity and still find a way to help Justin learn what happened to Christopher Creed.
I loved The Body of Christopher Creed, so a sequel written along the same lines - a psychological mystery powered by an ever-increasing thread of tension - would have hard time living up to the standard that the first book set. But while Following Christopher Creed is undoubtedly another top-flight psychological mystery, it is also markedly different from its predecessor in some respects. Where the first novel was more like a cable being wound ever tighter, this sequel is that same cable as it frays and then comes steadily unwound. It is the unraveling of kinks and knots that leads to a central core of truth.
The Body of Christopher Creed was essentially two stories, a pair of excellent, intricate character studies. The life of Christopher Creed was revealed in absentia and the reader watched Torey Adams in the present as his relentless quest for the truth gradually alienated him from most of the other residents of Steepleton. Following Christopher Creed is also built around two stories. It’s about the events that have lead to Justin Creed’s slide toward drug abuse and mental illness since his brother’s disappearance and also about Mike Mavic’s journey toward making peace with his own difficult past. As with the first novel, Ms. Plum-Ucci has used prose, plot and pacing here brilliantly to hook the reader from the first scene and keep him or her feverishly turning pages until the very end.
Note: It is not strictly necessary to have read The Body of Christopher Creed before you read Following Christopher Creed (although you should, because it is amazing). Where information form the first book is needed, Ms. Plum-Ucci has made clever use of Mavic’s exhaustive knowledge of the contents of ChrisCreed.com to fill in the necessary background.(less)
“Britt is always on my case about being too cautious, she wants me to actually create every over-the-top outfit I sketch, no matter how wild or weird,...more “Britt is always on my case about being too cautious, she wants me to actually create every over-the-top outfit I sketch, no matter how wild or weird, and then wear it to school just to see what happens. But unlike her, I’m not a just-to-see-what-happens kind of girl. I prefer to test the waters first.” -
Lauren doesn’t believe in love at first sight. She leaves that kind of thing to her best friend Britt, who claims to ‘feel sparks’ for about half of the boys she meets. So while Lauren has a new boy on the hook every two weeks or so, Lauren has only had two real boyfriends, like EVER. All of which only makes what happened at the planetarium even stranger. The planetarium, where Lauren took one look at a boy and ‘ping’, there it was, instant connection. Of course, she didn’t even get his name, so that should be the end of it. Then Britt finds this über-romantic FaceBook post from a boy named Riley who is looking for his ‘Planetarium Girl’ and IT’S HIM. Lauren is totally psyched because it looks like she’s going to get a chance to explore the ‘ping’ after all. Of course, she didn’t plan on all the impostors who took one look at Riley’s romantic message and decided to claim that they were “Planetarium Girl,’ or for Riley, who is happy to meet a ‘new music buddy’ but absolutely refuses to believe that Lauren is “Planetarium Girl.’ Doesn’t he still feel the connection? What’s a girl to do?
At its core, At First Sight is a romance in the ‘girl finds boy, girl loses boy, girl finds boy again’ mode, with just a bit of a twist. It’s pretty standard fare for the Simon Romantic Comedies, although it is better written than most. I should point out, however, that while At First Sight is light, calling it a comedy is stretching things a bit. The point with romances like this is not ‘how is it going to turn out,’ because you pretty much know the answer to that question as soon as you read the blurb on the back cover. No, the point is, ‘how does the book get to the happy ending.’ At First Sight gets there via a lightweight and breezy story and leaves you feeling happily satisfied.(less)
“Please declare aloud: I hereby undertake to tread the world, to garden the wild, and to saddle the seas, as did my brother Brendan. I will not turn a...more “Please declare aloud: I hereby undertake to tread the world, to garden the wild, and to saddle the seas, as did my brother Brendan. I will not turn away from shades in fear, nor avert my eyes from light. I shall do as my Keeper requires, and keep no secret from a Sage. May the stars guide me, and my strength preserve me. And I will not smoke in the library.” - Oath of the Order of Brendan, translation approved, 1946.
Cyrus Lawrence Smith, a nearly too tall boy of almost thirteen, is absolutely, positively convinced that his life cannot get any worse. Two years ago - well, two years ago Cy’s life was perfect. The Smith family - Cyrus, his sister Antigone, his older brother Daniel, and his wonderful, vibrant parents - all lived quite happily on the coast in northern California. That was before everything went horribly, tragically wrong. Cyrus’s father died - drowned at sea - and his mother fell into a coma from which she may never awaken. Dan, who used to be laid-back and happily-go-lucky, has had to take on all of the stress and worry of keeping their dwindling family afloat and together. The house in California is long gone, sold to help pay the bills. For the past two years, the three remaining Smiths have lived in the decrepit Archer, a once grand example of the roadside motel slouching by the highway on the outskirts of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
So yeah, Cyrus’s life has been pretty tough lately, but it was never out and out bizarre before the last 48 hours. It all started when Billy ‘Bones’ Skelton, a walking definition of ‘crazy old man’ as far as Cyrus can tell, called the Archer and demanded a specific room for the night. Any type of paying guest is strange enough, but no one has ever wanted to stay in one particular room. That phone call set off a chain of events that has seen Cyrus nearly electrocuted, the Archer burned down and Dan kidnapped by the insanely evil henchman of a malevolent criminal who sometimes calls himself Dr. Phoenix and sometimes, Mr. Ashes. Now Cyrus and Antigone have pledged themselves to the Order of Brendan, an obscure and ancient society of explorers who keep the world’s secrets and beat back evil wherever they find it. The O of B is the Smiths’ only hope of rescuing their brother, but it’s obvious that not every member is ready to welcome Cyrus and Antigone into their ranks. They’ll have to work very hard just to avoid being tossed out on their ears while they determine just what, exactly, is going on.
It’s not easy to find an original work of fantasy that successfully combines the world we know with the world of myth and legend. Mr. Wilson has done that with The Dragon’s Tooth and he’s done so in a particularly vivid and inventive way. The Ashtown Estate of the Order of Brendan is as much a character in this novel as any of the people Cyrus and Antigone meet and Mr. Wilson gives this institution a personality that is both grand and forbidding. The myth-building is perfectly executed here. The reader learns things about the O of B along with Cyrus and Antigone and, also along with them, finds confusion turning to wonder and fear morphing into a determination to set things right.
All of the characters are multi-faceted and interesting but it is Cyrus Smith, along with his sister, that makes The Dragon’s Tooth work on every level. He ties the fantastical to the real and gives the reader a stake in the outcome of Dan’s kidnapping. The story is full of action and conflict, heroes, villains and those that are a little bit of both, and it is up to Cyrus and Antigone to figure out who will help them and who is working to see them fail. The Dragon’s Tooth is the first book in the new Ashtown Burials series but, unlike so many other series starters, it is also a fully realized, richly entertaining novel on its own. Fantasy fans are sure to love it and those who haven’t liked the genre before may find themselves pulled into Cyrus’s story.
As a final note, I ought to add that the Advanced Readers’ Copy I had said this book was designated for readers 8-12. I’m sure there are 8-year-olds out there who can handle the darkness, danger and violence of the story, but parents should be aware that The Dragon’s Tooth may be a bit intense for younger readers.(less)