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I waited far too long to read this book. I'd heard good things about it but had somehow managed not to hear anything about the plot before eventually reading it earlier this month. So, I had the rare opportunity to read a book with no preconceptions about the plot or if it was "my" kind of book. Thankfully, it was my kind of book.

Official blurb:

Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped.

When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart.

But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.

There is so much I loved about this book, so let me start with what a physically beautiful book it is. The cover is gorgeous, but so is each page with its edging filled with map imagery. It gave me the impression I was reading an older story, maybe because it reminded me of illuminated manuscripts and a time when books were individually hand-made. This level of care and detail really adds to the book and shows the love that went into its production.

The second thing I loved was the world building. Millwood Hargrave's world was believable and easy to understand quickly without relying on existing worlds or stereotypes. It had hints of familiarity without falling into any specific category I have seen. Often writers can use existing worlds (real or imagined) and then build their own worlds on that foundation. Sometimes it helps lend it more depth (for instance Alwyn Hamilton's world in Rebel of the Sands pulls from wild west and Arabian nights worlds to give the reader something both familiar and new), but it is still refreshing to see such a new world that doesn't quite fit any existing tropes.

The third thing I loved about this book was the use of maps and cartography in building a sense of wonder and adventure. Isabella has a strong desire to map her island and to explore beyond its edges. It's easy to imagine that if you had the opportunity to go somewhere only a few people had ever been before that it would be hard to resist. There are few things more intriguing than a map with bits unfilled (here be dragons!) or a map of somewhere only a few people have been (Treasure Island!) I was glad that her quest had a satisfyingly exciting outcome, but I won't spoil the plot in this review.

Overall Girl of Ink and Stars is a very fun read and a tale that felt both new and old at the same time. I look forward to more from Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

I wish Kate DiCamillo had started writing ten years earlier. Then I would have been able to enjoy her books when I was in the target audience instead of waiting until I was old enough to start reading kids books again. Even so, I'm very much enjoying getting to know her writing now.

I first read The Tale of Despereaux with an English student of mine in Japan several years ago. We both really enjoyed it, but I hadn't picked up any more by Kate DiCamillo until a couple months ago when I listened to the audio book of Because of Wynn Dixie (read by Cherry Jones). I was utterly charmed by her distinct and memorable characters.

I found the same wonderful ability to bring characters to life in her most recent book, Raymie Nightingale.
I listened to this one as well, beautifully read by Jenna Lamia (great casting Listening Library!)

Official blurb:
Raymie Clarke has come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on her. And she has a plan. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie's picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with the wispy, frequently fainting Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and the fiery, stubborn Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest. But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls into an unlikely friendship — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.

I have to say, I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. Not because I didn't have high expectations, but because normally "unlikely friendships" aren't really my thing. However, DiCamillo vividly brings to life the individual personalities of each character and pulls the reader into the girls' stories. The overall story is rather simple, Raymie is sad her father left and thinks that if she can somehow show him she's important, he'll come back to her. But along the way the plot itself loses importance beneath the experiences each girl—Raymie, Beverly, Louisiana—has and the things they learn from one another.

Raymie Nightingale is a beautiful, sad, and uplifting story. While the individual characters can be a little too absurd to believe (especially Louisiana), their experiences and feelings are believable and easy to identify with, and I think the absurdity adds to the charm. As Raymie deals with things she's never encountered before (loss, death, poverty), she asks questions that we all wonder. I love that DiCamillo doesn't shy away from big questions that might not have happy answers, or sometimes might not have answers at all; and while the story does end on a happy note, it's not a trite fairy tale wrap-up where nobody is dead after all and everyone is together again. All in all, a lovely read (or, listen).

Jenna Lamia does a wonderful job with voices and accents. I love her Louisiana Elefante.

Autumn is the perfect time for creepy tales, and not just because Halloween is approaching. The days are getting shorter, there's a chill in the air. So what better way to spend your evenings than with a warm drink and a scary book?
Here are some of my favorite creepy middle grade books (with one older book snuck in).

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley

Whenever Edgar visits Uncle Montague in his dark old house—full of subtle sounds and moving shadows—his uncle tells him stories. These mostly take the form of cautionary tales, ending in a child's, often gruesome, death. Is it a coincidence that each story is linked to a physical object in the house? And how does uncle Montague know these stories when in every case the person they occurred to is dead? Edgar begins to wonder if there's more to his mysterious uncle than he'd ever guessed.

I love short stories. I think they work remarkably well for horror as they often leave much to the reader's imagination. Priestly does a great job of weaving these separately scary stories together into one sinister framework. (I must also mention the Edward Gorey-esque artwork by David Roberts which is gorgeous.)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

The Blackwoods live in a grand old house on the family estate. That is, half of them do. The other half died tragically six years ago when arsenic was mixed into the sugar bowl one evening. Now, mentally impaired Uncle Julian, big sister Constance, who was accused and then acquitted of the murders, and Merricat, the youngest in the family are the only three living there. Shunned by the people of the town, and terrified of setting foot beyond the garden, Constance hasn't left the grounds in six years. Merricat and Constance live a secluded but insularly happy life until an estranged cousin shows up and everything changes. Even Merricat's magic rituals are unable to stop tragedy from striking and secrets from being revealed. But even then, things might not be what they seem.

So, this is the non-MG book I've snuck in here. But it's worth it. While this book isn't exactly spooky, it's definitely got a creep factor, especially as you begin to realize the truth of what happened to the Blackwoods. Merricat is my absolute favorite example of an unreliable narrator. Even though it's clear from the beginning that we're getting her perspective, it's difficult to foresee just how *different* that perspective will turn out to be.

Tell the Story to its End by Simon P. Clark

When Oli finds a strange creature living in his uncle's attic, he decides to keep it to himself. After all, his mum, aunt, and uncle are all keeping secrets from him—why should he tell them anything? The creature, which Oli learns is called "Eren," is unspeakably old, and its unpredictable moods can turn from comfortingly sympathetic to dark and sinister in a breath. Oli, wary but fascinated is drawn ever inward by the creature's stories. Soon enough, Oli finds himself telling his own stories to Eren. But is it his imagination, or is Eren getting bigger and growing stronger? Oli may just find out that stories can be more powerful than he thought.

Tell the Story to its End (or Eren, in the UK) is a dark and beautiful examination of the enduring power of stories. In its literary and poetic way it manages to be both creepy and thought-provoking. Do stories need to be real to be true?

Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

For the last fifty years England has been overrun by ghosts. They only come out after dark, and only children can see them—and fight them. Ghost hunting agencies have sprung up throughout the country, but nobody has been able to identify the cause of what is known simply as The Problem.
Amongst this, Lucy Carlyle is a talented psychic agent looking for work in London. She finds a job at the tiny ghost hunting agency of Lockwood & Co. run by charismatic and somewhat reckless Anthony Lockwood. After a series of dangerous encounters and a case gone horribly wrong, the team find themselves drawn into a job that might be beyond their abilities. It involves surviving the night in the most haunted house in England, and a staircase surrounded by the screams of the dead.

All the Lockwood books are equally amazing and are definitely among my top MG reads of all time. Stroud has an uncanny knack for being both super creepy and super funny in the same book. I couldn't put these books down, even though it meant reading some remarkably heart-thumping scenes by the light of my bedside lamp, surrounded by darkness.

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Zach, Poppy, and Alice are longtime friends. They've always been there for each other and always played together. But things start to change when Zach, pressured by his father, starts to question whether he's too old for make-believe games and friendships with girls. The friendship looks doomed to break apart until a curious incident reunites the three. Poppy begins to be haunted by a china doll. Or, more accurately, by the ghost of the murdered girl whose hair and ground up bones make up the doll. The doll must be returned to the murdered girl's grave or Poppy will face the ghost's wrath. The three set out on a quest to return the doll and find the truth about the murdered girl. Along the way, their friendship continues to be tested as they encounter setbacks, coming to the realization that being 12 makes adventuring a lot harder in the real world than in stories.

This book is wonderfully creepy without being very scary. Ultimately rather than being about ghosts, it's about the struggle of growing up and the way friendships adapt and change as you grow. But, if you're looking for an adventure with a healthy creep factor, this is the one for you.

I first saw this title mentioned in Publishers Weekly's children's e-mail as "book to watch." I thought it sounded interesting at the time, but forgot about it until the book trailer popped up in my Facebook feed a few weeks ago. After that, I moved it up in my "to-read" list, and I'm glad I did.

On the border between fantasy and magical realism, Serafina and the Black Cloak is a suspenseful supernatural mystery and a story about friendship and the realization that "normal" doesn't matter.

Official Blurb:
Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of the Biltmore estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.
But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity . . . before all of the children vanish one by one.
Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

Summary in a few words: Suspenseful; Atmospheric; Accessible

I actually had no idea what to expect when I began reading this book. Even with the book trailer and the blurb indicating that there was something strange and supernatural happening, I wasn't prepared for how suddenly the reader is thrust into the mystery and the action. Within the first two chapters someone gets attacked and Serafina already has to run for her life. This is really drew me in right away.

I've never been to Biltmore, but it was quite easy to imagine the grandeur of the old house. It's clear that Beatty did his research and was very familiar with the house's layout and how it would have been run. However, much more than the house, the nearby forest really has the images that will stick with me. The first scene in the forest with the coach was reminiscent of the early chapters of Dracula, when something as familiar and safe as a stagecoach journey suddenly becomes foreboding and dangerous. This section of the book that takes places in the forest is probably my favorite--I love abandoned places and, without spoiling anything, I'll just say that Serafina's journey into a certain part of the forest was deliciously creepy.

Serafina is a wonderful character because despite being other-worldly, she is actually very like many children of her age. She has some physical differences which she worries and wonders about, and she ponders if she could fit in with "normal" people her age. She has certain things shes knows about but has never experienced (gifts, friends), and when she does experience these things for the first time, she worries whether or not she's "doing it right." I think many readers in the book's target audience will find a kindred spirit in Serafina.

This was a fun read and the action and suspense kept me turning pages well after bedtime. There were plenty of red herrings and I really enjoyed finding out more about Serafina and the type of creature she is.
It's also worth noting that this book accomplishes a rare feat in middle grade fantasy-- it has a protagonist who has a parent who is present throughout the book, is a developed character, and isn't the bad guy. So often in middle grade fantasy the parents must be Got Rid Of in order for the protagonist to start his or her adventure. It's understandable, and I'm not against stories that do this, but I really do appreciate when the parent(s) can remain in the picture without being evil or one-dimensional. Well done Robert Beatty.

Serafina and the Black Cloak book trailer:

I've avoided reading series recently because I really don't like having to wait for a next release in order to find out how a story continues. Especially after reading George R.R. Martin's A Feast for Crows several years ago, I thought I was done with reading series forever (that weird apologetic note at the end? What even was that?).
However I've started a couple middle grade series recently that are winning me back to the opinion that series can be good. It's great to read a book and already know the characters and world they're set in and be able to get down to the plot right away.
Two new favorites are Robin Stevens' Murder Most Unladylike series (aka Wells and Wong Mysteries in the US) and Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co. books.

The Murder Most Unladylike series are very fun murder mysteries set in the 1930s. Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are students at Deepdean boarding school for young ladies. After forming a secret detective society they find that the murders almost seem to follow them around.

There are four book published so far in the UK and two in the US with the release date for #5 (UK) set for later this year.

Here's the official blurb for the first book, Murder Most Unladylike (in the US, Murder is Bad Manners):
When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency at Deepdean School for Girls, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t, really.)

But then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. She thinks it must all have been a terrible accident – but when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared.

Now the girls know a murder must have taken place . . . and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive. Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve: they have to prove a murder happened in the first place. Determined to get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again (and before the police can get there first, naturally), Hazel and Daisy must hunt for evidence, spy on their suspects and use all the cunning, scheming and intuition they can muster. But will they succeed? And can their friendship stand the test?
I really love the setting both in time and place. Boarding schools hold a fascination for me as something both very foreign and very old-fashioned; although I know they still exist today (in the US as well as the UK!), I can't help imagining even today's boarding school students in 1920s clothes. Not all the books take place at the boarding school, but the other settings lend themselves well to mystery and Stevens provides helpful maps in each book to better imagine where and how the murders take places. As a big fan of Poirot--particularly on-screen (I love you David Suchet!)--the 1930s seems a perfect decade for mysteries.

The books are written from Hazel's perspective as she records the details of each case. The girls seem to have a sort of Sherlock and Watson relationship on the surface, but the reader quickly learns that far from simply recording Daisy's deductions, Hazel is actually the more thoughtful of the two and without the deductions of both girls the mysteries would not be solved. Both Hazel and Daisy are truly memorable characters and while they seem a bit over the top in their individual characteristics at first, they develop well over time and become more fleshed out as the books go on.

If I have one issue with this book it's that "Deepdean" is very difficult to say.

I definitely recommend these to anyone who likes an enjoyable and easy-to-read mystery with a good sense of humor.

As a side note, the buzz on Goodreads seems to indicate that the US versions have been unnecessarily "translated" for the American audience, but I have been reading the UK versions, so can't comment directly. As an American I found the UK versions completely comprehensible except that I had to look up how old the girls were as I'm not familiar with the school year system in the UK.

Since its release last month, Rebel of the Sands by debut author Alwyn Hamilton, hasn't stopped getting positive reviews... and here's another one (a little late to the party).

Official blurb
She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.
Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam the wild and barren wastes, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there's nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the dead-end town that Amani can't wait to escape from.
Destined to wind up "wed or dead," Amani’s counting on her sharpshooting skills to get her out of Dustwalk. When she meets Jin, a mysterious and devastatingly handsome foreigner, in a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route. But in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she'd gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan's army, with a fugitive who's wanted for treason. And she'd never have predicted she'd fall in love with him...or that he'd help her unlock the powerful truth of who she really is.
Summary in a few words: Original; Pleasing; Arabian romance

I love the combination of the wild west and Arabian nights. The two work surprisingly well together and, with Hamilton's brilliant world building, the reader is launched into an adventure in a world that is both familiar and exotically new. Small town in the middle of nowhere with a main character who wants desperately to escape, yes that's familiar. But, occasionally mythical horses gallop through town, shapeshifting "skinwalkers" roam the desert, and people whose fathers are among the magical First Beings walk hidden among normal people while a mysterious and possibly mythical prince leads a rebellion against the ruler of the land. That's new.

I appreciated that Amani was able to be tough without being an asshole. I think often in literature, but especially in television, when a female character is cool and tough, she also ends up being smug about it and kind of a jerk. I liked that Amani was real enough to make mistakes, but also didn't need to be saved all the time. I was a little disappointed to find that [spoilers] Amani isn't *just* a tough girl with amazing aim, but also is a "chosen one" type of hero--with special djinni blood. I feel in a way it takes away from her coolness a bit. She has cool abilities, but before we learned of her magical lineage, she was someone who was cool on her own merits.

Arabian Romance
To be honest I can do without romance in most books myself. I realize it's quite a staple of a lot of YA, so I can't complain when it exists. But I can say, if you were someone who had a crush on Aladdin as a kid, you won't mind what goes on in this novel between Amani and the suitably exotic and mysterious Jin.

When I started reading this I didn't realize it was part one of a trilogy. Now I am very much looking forward to the next installment and learning more about the rebellion. If you grew up loving The Arabian Nights and wishing there were more books set in that world, and don't mind some romance thrown in, definitely check out Rebel of the Sands.

I was so pleased to be able to read Riverkeep by Martin Stewart this week. The book is due out in April of this year in the UK and July in the US. The story is refreshingly imaginative while still delivering a classic Wizard of Oz-style adventure.

Official blurb
The DanĂ©k is a wild, treacherous river, and the Fobisher family has tended it for generations—clearing it of ice and weed, making sure boats can get through, and fishing corpses from its bleak depths. Wulliam’s father, the current Riverkeep, is proud of this work. Wull dreads it. And in one week, when he comes of age, he will have to take over.
Then the unthinkable happens. While recovering a drowned man, Wull’s father is pulled under—and when he emerges, he is no longer himself. A dark spirit possesses him, devouring him from the inside. In an instant, Wull is Riverkeep. And he must care for his father, too.
When he hears that a cure for his father lurks in the belly of a great sea-dwelling beast known as the mormorach, he embarks on an epic journey down the river that his family has so long protected—but never explored. Along the way, he faces death in any number of ways, meets people and creatures touched by magic and madness and alchemy, and finds courage he never knew he possessed.
Martin Stewart's debut novel is an astonishing blend of the literary, the comedic, and the emotionally resonant. In a sentence, it's The Wizard of Oz as told by Patrick Ness. It marks the beginning of a remarkable career.
I'm almost not sure what to say after that blurb, other than that it's very true.

My thoughts in a few words: Evocative, humorous in the right places, memorable characters, solid world-building.

Nothing in this book struck me so much as the wonderful descriptions that manage to capture individual moments in detail without being tedious. Martin Stewart has a beautifully strong grasp of how to describe a scene so that the reader truly feels as if they are there. At times the icy grasp of the river seemed to flow right out of the book. 

Humorous in the right places.
I really appreciate when books have characters that can be funny and still have depth. It's easy to slip in a one-dimensional comedic foil who is just there to make wisecracks and lighten the mood while the main character gets on with the Real Work. This book doesn't have that. Though there are a few ridiculous funny moments in there which I think were added solely to lighten the mood, the humor was well balanced. Tillinghast is definitely a new favorite character for me and I loved his innuendos and wisecracks as well as his deeper realizations about what it means to be human.

Memorable characters.
From the witch trying to bring her wooden baby back to life, to the homunculus who has stolen a mandrake for his own inscrutable purposes, to a mostly-mad one-legged whaler, each character has their own story which interweaves with Wulliam's and is just as interesting. (Just reading about the types of characters in the book makes you want to read it, doesn't it?) 

Solid world-building.
Riverkeep is set in a fictional world, but it contained just enough echoes of our world that it felt solid and real...and old. The clippings and excerpts from songs and history books at the beginning of each chapter helped flesh out a larger history and let the reader in on knowledge that everyone in the world of Riverkeep would already have known. I'd love to see more stories set in this world. 
Martin also managed to create some genuinely creepy creatures--not just the mormorach, but also other creatures Wulliam ends up having to deal with. I would not want to have a run-in with a faelkon.

Overall, definitely one to pre-order. I recommend this to anyone who likes a good quest with a bit of magic mixed in.

I would like to thank Heidi Schulz for once more giving me the opportunity to use my "pirates" tag on this blog.

The Pirate Code is the second book to feature young Jocelyn Hook, daughter of the famous Captain James Hook. As with the first book, Schulz continues to delight readers with not only a fantastic story, but lots of humor, and a view of the Neverland that is quite different to our childhood imaginings.

Official blurb:
Fresh off a fearsome encounter with the Neverland crocodile, Jocelyn Hook decides the most practical plan is to hunt down her father's famous fortune. After all, she'll need the gold to fund her adventuring in the future. (And luckily, Hook left her the map.)
But the map proves to be a bit harder to crack than Jocelyn had hoped, and she's convinced that the horrible Peter Pan might be the only one with the answers. Of course, he doesn't really feel like helping her, so Jocelyn takes the only reasonable course of action left to her: she kidnaps his mother. Evie, though, is absolutely thrilled to be taken prisoner, so Jocelyn's daring ploy doesn't have quite the effect she'd planned for.
Along with the problem of her all-too-willing captive, Jocelyn must also contend with Captain Krueger, whose general policy is that no deed is too dastardly when it comes to stealing Hook's treasure. And with the ever-shifting Whens of the Neverland working against her as well, Jocelyn, Evie, Roger, and the rest of the Hook's Revenge crew have their work cut out for them.
In this rambunctious showdown between characters new and old, Jocelyn puts her own brand of pirating to the test in a quest to save her future and those she loves.

My thoughts in a few words: Funny and clever, unpredictable, beautifully imaginative.

Funny and clever.
The grumpy pirate narrator returns (never letting us forget that he really can't stand children and we are being quite a bother to him) and tells the story, interrupting every once in a while for a well-timed aside that's sure to make you smile.

While there are serious elements to the plot and character development as Jocelyn must overcome complications and re-evaluate how she views her friendships, there is a general lightheartedness about the book that makes it very easy to read and balances the serious bits very well.

I really appreciate that despite this being a novel aimed at younger readers, Schulz doesn't go the route of creating the invincible protagonist--Jocelyn is, in the end, still a child and of course cannot single-handedly defeat adult pirates. Because of that, she must come up with alternative ways of overcoming her enemies. There are plenty of twists, unexpected defeats, and even the plot's resolution might come as a surprise to many readers.

Illustrations by John Hendrix
Beautifully imaginative.
There were a few scenes in the book that really stuck with me and which I thought were really brilliant. One is the forest that is fed by things children have left behind. What a fantastic concept. I love the concept of a tree that survives on a child's abandoned belief in magic, or fear of toads, or other things children at some point give up as they grow.

The other image I loved was the Jolly Roger sitting atop a mountain. I love abandoned things, so the idea of a lonely ship that once was a terror of Neverland's seas sitting on a mountain covered in snow was very evocative.

Definitely recommended for all ages of folk who like a rollicking adventure.

For more about Heidi Schulz, visit her piratey website. To buy The Pirate Code from your local independent bookstore, visit IndieBound.

I love Mark Twain. Not just because I love grumpy men (Dylan Moran is my spirit animal) and not just because I love sarcastic humor. I love Twain's ability to poke fun at all of humanity while still acknowledging that we are a splendid, if ridiculous, race. He makes fun of everyone indiscriminately, not excluding himself.

Map taken from The University of Virginia
The Innocents Abroad is Twain's account of his six month trip on a steamer on an "excursion to the Holy Land, Egypt, the Crimea, Greece, and intermediate points of interest." The program of the excursion sounds terribly exciting, even today when travel of this sort is less exotic. As he says, "Who could read the programme of the excursion without longing to make one of the party?"
Starting in New York, the cruise traveled across the Atlantic by way of the Azores and into the Mediterranean--including a trip up the Bosphorus and into the Black Sea. The travelers stopped in ports and traveled by land in most of the countries around that sea, taking a lot of time along the way to visit landmarks and take in the sights (including a meeting with Tsar Alexander II). Twain's blisteringly honest and irreverent observations and accounts of these many countries and famous places as they were in the mid-1800s makes for utterly fascinating and often hilarious reading.

It's not always an easy book to read since there isn't a continuous thread of story. I did find that once put down, I could easily not come back to this book for weeks at a time. Each time I picked it back up though, I fell back in love with Twain.

It is important to read this book with a grain of salt. Twain's views are indicative of the prejudices of the day, and he doesn't hesitate to make offensive observations about the "backwardness" of certain people groups and in fact whole countries and compare them to countries considered more civilized (mainly America and England). But in a way I find it refreshing to know they are his honest views, even if some are ones I disagree with. His honesty means that sometimes he drastically changes his view of a place or people group within the same chapter as he gets to learn more about it and he readily admits to this change of view.
"I set down these first thoughts because they are natural--not because they are just or because it is right to set them down. It is easy for book-makers to say 'I thought so and so as I looked upon such and such a scene'--when the truth is, they thought all those fine things afterwards. One's first thought is not likely to be strictly accurate yet it is no crime to think it and none to write it down, subject to modification by later experience."
But what makes this so very Twain is that amongst all his complaining about and poking fun at other people and cultures he's not above making fun of himself  as well.
I am reminded, now, of one of these complaints of the cookery made by a passenger. The coffee had been steadily growing more and more execrable for the space of three weeks, till at last it had ceased to be coffee altogether and had assumed the nature of mere discolored water — so this person said. He said it was so weak that it was transparent an inch in depth around the edge of the cup. As he approached the table one morning he saw the transparent edge — by means of his extraordinary vision long before he got to his seat. He went back and complained in a high-handed way to Capt. Duncan. He said the coffee was disgraceful. The Captain showed his. It seemed tolerably good. The incipient mutineer was more outraged than ever, then, at what he denounced as the partiality shown the captain’s table over the other tables in the ship. He flourished back and got his cup and set it down triumphantly, and said:
“Just try that mixture once, Captain Duncan.”
He smelt it — tasted it — smiled benignantly — then said:
“It is inferior — for coffee — but it is pretty fair tea.”
The humbled mutineer smelt it, tasted it, and returned to his seat. He had made an egregious ass of himself before the whole ship. He did it no more. After that he took things as they came. That was me.
The Innocents Abroad is quite a wonderful adventure and the reader gets to see Gibraltar, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Israel, Syria, Egypt, and more as they were 150 years ago. Ships, tropical islands, famous cities, exotic cuisine, art, sculpture, architecture, mountains, rivers, lakes, camels, camping, "the orient," the Holy Land, deserts, mummies, pyramids, really what more could you want?

I read half of this book, and listened to the other half when it became clear that I'd never end up finishing it if I read it in the traditional way. I listened to it on Librivox, and John Greenman reads it very well indeed.


Vince Elgin is an orphan, having lost his mother and his father in a fire when he was young, but beyond that, his life hasn't been much of a fairy tale. With only a senile grandfather he barely knows to call family, Vince was remanded to a group home, where he spun fantastical stories, dreaming of the possibility that his father, whose body was never found, might one day return for him. But it's been a long time since the fire, a long time since Vince has told himself a story worth believing in. That's when a letter arrives, telling Vince his grandfather has passed away. Vince cannot explain it, but he's convinced that if his father is somehow still alive, he'll find him at the funeral. He strikes out for his grandfather's small hometown of Dyerville carrying only one thing with him: his grandfather's journal. The journal tells a story that could not possibly be true, a story of his grandfather's young life involving witches, giants, magical books, and evil spirits. But as Vince reads on and gets closer to Dyerville, fact and fiction begin to intertwine, and Vince finds that his very real adventure may have more in common with his grandfather's than he ever could have known.

I really enjoyed this book - it reminded me a lot of the film Big Fish in that Vince learns more and more about his grandfather through seemingly fantastical tales, while also learning that there might be more truth in them than he realized.

My thoughts in a few words: Imaginative, suspenseful, frightful, a bit unsatisfying.

Kozlowsky manages to create a vibrant world within the tales that Vince reads. Each tale holds some traditional fairy tale elements while also having new and unexpected twists that keep the readers on their toes. I loved reading about the changing doors within the giant's cave, the creepy creature which guards what Vincent needs, and the dream world where he could stay forever if he wished. The imagery within each of the tales is vibrant and will stay with the reader for a long time after closing the book.

Suspenseful and frightful
Despite the novel being middle grade, it doesn't hold back with the horror. I love when children's books have genuinely creepy bits in like Coraline or The Book of Lost Things (though I suppose you could argue that TBoLT is a novel for adults). Most of The Dyerville Tales are pretty tame, until the last few when the creep factor really gets cranked up. The bit where Vincent has to face The Tall Man actually had me looking up from the book at every noise from the dark hallway outside my bedroom door. Kozlowsky has a gift for creepy characters--The Tall Man, Death, the witch's servants, and eventually the witch herself.

A bit unsatisfying
Spoiler warning. I felt that while the ending of the book was good I wanted something more. There were loose ends that I wanted tied up. I got the feeling that Kozlowsky wanted to make a statement about reality and stories, but I wasn't sure that we ever really got there. I liked that he strings the reader along - are the stories true or not? Are they partly true? In the end, does it matter that a story isn't true if believing in it can inspire us or keep us going? This was good for most of the book and really kept me guessing, but even at the end we aren't given a fulfilling answer. It seems like Kozlowsky is hinting that the stories aren't true but are a way of coping with the real world--then at the very end of the book the indication is strong that the stories are true. But that throws a wrench into the works and opens more questions that are unanswered in the abrupt ending. Is Vince's dad still alive? Were Vince's parents really trying to save him from something the night of the fire? What's the real cause of his grandfather's scar and why was there so much focus on it? What were the numbers on the tree house ladder? There's no indication these answers are being saved for a sequel; throughout the book I was sure these would all be answered by the end, but they weren't and that left me unsatisfied.

Overall this book is definitely worth reading, even if just for the stories within the story.

(Purchase The Dyerville Tales by M.P. Kozlowsky from Indiebound)

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