Saturday, May 21, 2011

The House of Dead Maids (fiction)

Sometimes you wonder what happened in a person's past to make them turn out the way they did. What's their backstory? But authors don't often give us the behind-the-scenes glimpses that we desire.

Such is the case with Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, whose creator Emily Bronte tells us so little of how he was orphaned or why his unseen childhood turned him into such a brutal man.

Clare B. Dunkle decided to tell Heathcliff's backstory in this very creepy and very plausible prequel to Wuthering Heights - lots and lots of scary packed into a short book! (I don't ever, ever want to travel to those moors...)

Book info: The House of Dead Maids / by Clare B. Dunkle; illus. by Patrick Arrasmith. Henry Holt, 2010. 146 pgs. [author's website] [publisher site] [book trailer]

Recommendation: Hired as a nursemaid for a little boy, Tabitha wonders what happened to the other girl from her orphanage who held the position before her. Seldom House is a huge, gloomy place on the English moorlands, with no windows facing south and a bleak inner courtyard where nothing grows.

The villagers stare and whisper, no one from Seldom House goes to church with her, and Tabby finds odd toys suddenly uncovered in her bedroom. Who is the other girl she hears running down the hall? Mrs. Winter says that no other girls live in the house.

Soon Tabby sees the ghosts she’s been hearing, all the dead maids of the house, and meets the little boy, who’s savage and wild, who has been promised that he will be Master of Seldom House, who can see the ghosts of all the dead masters. Overhearing a plan to murder them during a thunderstorm, as the land must have blood to be satisfied, she vows that they’ll both escape.

This chilling prequel to Wuthering Heights gives the dark background of the little orphan boy brought to Seldom House to ensure its luck, to take the place of its master, to learn of murder - the savage little boy who grew up to become Heathcliff… (one of 5,000 books recommended on

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cinderella: Ninja Warrior (fiction)

It's Eliza Doolittle Day, honoring the streetwise flower seller transformed into a society lady by Professor Higgins (Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw).

So here's a classic transformation tale with a twist. Cinderella: Ninja Warrior (first of the Canadian author's Twisted Tales series) spices things up a bit and lets readers select alternate paths through the middle of the story! Yes, it's "Cinderella" meets "Choose Your Own Adventure" meets "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" - well, not really Ninja Turtles, but lots of magic, wizardry, ninja skills, and that really evil stepmother.

You want some escapist, have-a-fun-time reading with a feisty heroine and a few surprises? Then this is your book! And you can share it with younger readers, too - lots of action, coy romance, and bad guys getting what they deserve, whichever path you choose! I can't wait to read #2, Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer!

Book info: Cinderella: Ninja Warrior / by Maureen McGowan. Silver Dolphin, 2011. [author's blog] [author's website] [publisher site]

Recommendation: Cinderella discovers that ninja training enhances the concentration and strength needed to improve her magical abilities in this “choose-your-path” version of the classic tale. Her evil stepmother is a strong wizard, nearly as strong as Cinderella’s late father and mother were, but only uses her powers in evil ways. If Cinderella can just improve her martial arts and magical abilities enough, she might escape past the ravenous wolves of night or break the daylight locking curse that her stepmother placed on every door and window of her father’s house…

Lucky that her cat pushed that ninja skills book off the enchanted shelf in her father’s old study, lucky that Max kept pawing open the book so she would try the skills, lucky that her stepmother never came into the dank cellar where Cinderella practiced – but can she learn these difficult skills without a real teacher?

When the King sends invitations to a fabulous ball so that Prince Tiberius may select a bride, Cinderella must decide whether to risk her stepmother’s wrath by attending or to stay home from the ball, perhaps forever – the first of the reader’s three options to choose the path of the story.

A curious royal messenger, martial arts contests, trials by magic, mistaken identities, mystical transformations – your choices make every reading of this classic fairy tale into a new story. Enjoy a great new twist on an old favorite as you select Cinderella’s path, cheering for our heroine and booing at her wicked stepmother. (one of 5,000 books recommended on (Advance readers copy courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ender's Game (fiction) - Guest Post

Notes: Welcoming guest blogger Maggie who highlights a 'forgotten gem' of YA fiction - in this case, classic science fiction that may turn out to be closer to reality than we'd like to believe.

Book info: Ender's Game / by Orson Scott Card. Tor-Forge Books (Macmillan), 1994. [author's website] [publisher site] First book in the Ender Quartet. [book trailer by a fan]

Recommendation: An oldie but a goodie, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (published in various story forms since 1977) takes place in a post-Cold War dystopia in which parents are discouraged from having more than two children. Disgracefully, Ender is a Third, but, although he should be the spare - the expendable one - he is selected by the powers that be to be trained on a space station orbiting Earth. He is put through rigorous, even abusive, combat training which alienates him from the other recruits on board the station. His final “training exercise” requires him to command a fleet of space ships launched in an offensive against an alien home world - such a realistic videogame.

Card did not first intend to write a young adult novel, but his themes reach out to a much wider audience than he ever intended to address. In his acceptance speech for the Margaret A. Edwards Award, he admits, “Ender’s Game was written with no concessions to young readers. My protagonists were children, but the book was definitely not aimed at kids” (Card, “Margaret” 15). Nevertheless, he writes, “Young readers… are… deeply inside Ender’s character. They still live in a world largely (or, with younger readers, entirely) shaped by the adults around them. Ender’s attitude is revelatory to them” (Card, “Margaret” 17).

Although some see Ender’s Game as dated by its post-Cold War binaries of East and West - and subsequently Human and Alien – this novel, like many by Card, has a long lasting appeal to readers of all ages.

Works Mentioned
Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. New York: Tor, 1991.
---. “Margaret A. Edwards Award Acceptance Speech.” Young Adult Library Services (Fall 2008): 14-18.

Guest Blogger Bio: L. Maggie Fanning, M.A. English professor, creative writer, and professional editor. Respond to my reflections at or at

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Haunting of Charles Dickens (fiction)

Did you remember to celebrate Biographers Day on May 16th (our Guest Post Day)? In the hands of a skilled biographer, an average life becomes a nuanced tapestry worth noting, and an extraordinary life shows all its colors. But what of the fictionalized biography?

I remember being surprised as a child that the "Little House on the Prairie" books were in Fiction, because they were about real people who really did live in the Big Woods and on the Prairie, where you can visit a replica of Laura's cabin today. By choice, Laura and daughter Rose used selected elements of the Ingalls' and Wilders' lives as they crafted the Little House books, as this NPR program notes, recreating conversations from decades earlier and omitting events for better story flow.

We have to trust that writers of fictionalized biographies will stick to the major facts of their subjects' lives (like early baseball book Mudball, by Matt Tavares), or else tell us that we'll be traveling off the path of real history and far into the woods of speculation (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, anyone?).

I think that Lewis Buzbee indeed warns us fairly that The Haunting of Charles Dickens uses just one bit of the writer's life and runs through the alleys of London with it, as Dickens helps the Pickel family of printers solve a mystery. A fun book, with enough of the real Dickens in it that older readers will grasp how the wretched backstreet life that he witnesses becomes the heart of his books, but not so much literary insider talk that younger mystery fans will find it distracting.

On second thought, let's just enjoy this book in honor of International Old Friends, New Friends Week, shall we?

Book info
: The Haunting of Charles Dickens / by Lewis Buzbee, illustrated by Greg Ruth. Fiewel & Friends (Macmillan), 2010. [author's website] [publisher site] [book trailer ]

Buzbee also wrote Steinbeck's Ghost, another literary mystery for middle graders which received good reviews and would be a great read for Steinbeck fans of any age. Watch for his upcoming lit-mystery, Mark Twain and the Mysterious Stranger.

Recommendation: Meg is frantic when her big brother Orion disappears from their family's London printshop. Has he been captured by a press-gang to work on the new railway or sail away on a trading ship? Six months gone, with no word at all!

And he'd taken the last section of Great Expectations with him as well! Their good friend Charles Dickens had Meg gasping and laughing and worrying about Pip through the earlier parts of his book, but she never got to finish the story and she can't stop worrying about Orion, even if he is 15 and old enough to take care of himself.

When she spots a strange green glow on a nearby rooftop, Meg asks Mr. Dickens to help her investigate. They find a spiritualist medium at work, using tricks to get money from sorrowful families who want to communicate with their dead loved ones. When actual ghosts come out to meet the pair on the rooftop later, they give clues about Orion's disappearance.

Racing through the dim alleys, into London's dangerous underworld of petty thieves and master criminals, Meg and Mr. Dickens follow Orion's trail as they interpret signs and signals that point to a greater and more dangerous plot.

New antiques, tunnels to nowhere, a trip abroad without leaving London - can they find Orion before he disappears forever? Can Meg and Mr. Dickens stop the danger that threatens the whole city and still keep the famous writer's name out of it? (one of 5,000 books recommended on

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dancing Through the Snow (fiction)

Canadian author Jean Little introduces us to Min, abandoned as a toddler at the fairground, knowing only her name and that the man called Bruno will hit when he gets angry. Can you imagine being bounced from foster home to foster home the way that she has? And to be 'returned' to Social Services just before Christmas, like a wrong-size sweater! It's no wonder that Min bottles up her feelings and rarely speaks, not willing to be hurt any further.

As we watch Min tentatively reach out to her newest foster mother and actually talk enough at her new school to make friends, let's remember that most kiddos are in foster care through circumstances beyond their control and that every childhood deserves happiness. Saluting foster families and the agencies that serve these children during National Foster Care Month.

Book info: Dancing Through the Snow / by Jean Little. Kane Miller, 2009. [author's site] [publisher site]

: As she waits for her foster mom, Min keeps a toddler from running into traffic. Why can’t someone rescue Min from the endless round of foster homes, from not knowing why she was abandoned as a toddler, from not knowing her own birthday? And being returned to Miss Willis’s office right before Christmas! Twelve year-old Min feels abandoned all over again.

Suddenly, Dr. Jess Hart is there, as she was when Min was in the hospital with pneumonia, and Dr. Jess says that Min is going home with her for the holidays! Her nephew Toby turns out to be the toddler’s big brother and helps Min settle in for a real Christmas.

As they are sledding one day, Min and Toby find a mistreated dog and insist that Jess take the badly injured animal to the vet. Is it a stray pet? An escapee from the suspected puppy mill near their friend’s country house?

The new year brings new worries. Will the kids at her new school make fun of Min because of her unknown past? Does Jess really want Min to stay with her? Can the little dog survive to come live with them? Has Toby’s dad survived the tsunami where he was working? How can the schoolkids help the disaster victims so far away?

The Canadian winter seems a bit warmer as Min gets to know Jess and Toby better in this hopeful story. (one of 5,000 books recommended on

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dark Is Rising Sequence (fiction) - Guest post

Today I've invited fellow Blogathonner Stephanie Suesan Smith to talk up her favorite YA books for WordCount Blogathon Challenge 2011 guest post day. She's selected a great fantasy series which has withstood the test of time - Enjoy!
Recommendation: There are many books that were published well before Harry Potter that contain magic, quests, and the fight between good and evil. One such series that was published starting in 1965 is as vibrant today as when it was written. Although the settings contain no computers or cell phones, The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper takes us to a world within our world just the same.

Written for preteens, the stories are so ageless that I still re-read them when I need to remind myself that it is up to each of us to do our part in order that the end result comes out all right. The stories are set in Britain and are an arc of Arthurian quests without that being the overwhelming feature of the books.

Over Sea, Under Stone
is the first book and is more of a prequel than a part of the series. Start with it, but know that even better things are coming. Three children go to Cornwall with their parents to vacation with a distant relative. While rambling in the home, the children find a map to a treasure. With the dark trying to obtain the map on one hand, and the light trying to help the children, it is a race to see who reaches the object first.

The Dark Is Rising is one of my favorite books to read on a bad day when the rain is coming down and the shadows won’t go away. The British celebrate Christmas differently than Americans, and perhaps that is part of the magic of this book. It is set to the tempo of the twelve days of Christmas as a young boy, Will, becomes an adult in the world of beings who fight for or against the Dark. He is the last of his order to complete this task, and failure means the fight is lost.

Greenwitch is a book dealing with a pre-Christian ritual and belief about the sea and powerful spirits leaving there. It is well known fishermen are superstitious and believe in things others do not. The children from the first book are joined by the one from the second to recover a lost object held by one of these spirits. No force can compel this spirit to part with the needed talisman. Can friendship?

The Grey King
is the gathering. The Grey King is a powerful evil spirit working to keep the Light from winning. Will goes to Wales to stay with relatives after an illness. He must overcome the evil and help the light as the last gathering of forces begins. The final battle looms as time grows short.

Silver on the Tree
is the last book in the series. Will and all his kind go on a final quest to rid the earth of the Dark and leave it safe for mankind. Each child, Will, his three friends from the first book, and a fourth from the fourth book, is tested by the Dark and the powerful earth magic that governs how the quest must be followed. Will they succeed? Will it be enough?

People who like the Harry Potter series will like these books. The violence is much less obvious in this series. The books can be read again and again as more is discovered in each reading.

Book info: The Dark Is Rising boxed set, by Susan Cooper. Paperback: 1088 pages
Publisher: McElderry (August 21, 2007)[author's official website] [publisher site]

Guest blogger bio: Stephanie Suesan Smith mainly uses her Ph.D. in clinical psychology to train her dogs. She is also a master gardener, member of the Garden Writer’s Association, and woodworker. Stephanie writes on almost any nonfiction topic and has had some unusual experiences that contribute to that ability. Getting pooped on by a rattlesnake probably ranks tops there, but things just seem to happen to her. View more of them at View her photos at View her woodworking at

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Saraswati's Way (fiction)

As a school librarian living in India, Monika is writing from the heart. She's seen too many children who must work instead of go to school, no matter how intelligent they are, because the debts of their family are so overwhelming. The orphans scavenging recyclables from the railway station trash are still there, despite the info-tech revolution sweeping their country.

The author's book trailer gives us a glimpse of the grim reality and many obstacles that Akash faces as he struggles to get schooling in this luminous story leavened with hope.

Book info: Saraswati's Way / by Monika Schroder. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2010. [author's website] [publisher site]

Recommendation: Akash’s talent for math can’t stop the drought in his village in India, can’t grow enough crops to pay back the money his family owes, can’t cure the fever that strikes his father. So he must leave school and the village at age 12 to work off their debt in the landlord’s stone quarry. Everything is fated, his family says – the heavens have control of earth, and we cannot change what is fated. But Akash prays to Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, that someday, somehow, he will return to school to learn more math and English.

Akash finds that his hard work at the quarry only nibbles at the family’s debt, so he could work there until he was an old man before he paid it off. Not content that fate will keep him at the quarry forever, he sneaks onto a train bound for the huge city of Delhi where he could earn money faster.

The New Delhi train station is like a city itself – huge and crowded and noisy. Akash falls in with a group of orphan boys who collect bottles and boxes for money. Soon he meets up with people who want to help him and people who want to use his talents only to earn money for themselves.

Can Akash keep himself safe in Delhi? Can he survive and earn money for his family in honest ways, as his father taught him? Will he ever get to school again, or will he remain homeless and poor like so many other youngsters in his crowded country?

A fascinating story with too-real situations, you’ll root for Akash as he strives for wisdom, trying to follow Saraswati’s Way in his fight for survival. (one of 5,000 books recommended on