Recent Reads

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Book of the Dead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child – the latest entry in the Pendergast series and every bit as tightly plotted and exciting as the others. FBI agent A.X.L. Pendergast and his evil younger brother, Diogenes, are at it again, with A. in federal prison awaiting trial on murder charges and D. loose in the Museum of Natural History in NYC. As A. languishes in prison, D. goes forward with a diabolical plot to destroy all of his enemies and a goodly number of the general population as well. Curator Nora Kelly is assigned the monumental task of re-opening the Tomb of Senef, a museum exhibit that was mysteriously closed and bricked up in the 1930’s. Little does she know, she has become a pawn in Diogenes’ deadly pursuit of what he sees as justice for a wrong done him when he was a child. Preston & Child are masters at twisty-turny plots that pull the reader in one direction after another, but which are so finely crafted that you never lose your way. One thing I have always liked about the Preston-Child collaboration is that they keep their characters to a bare minimum, which allows the reader to keep track of the complicated plot without having to remember a million characters and what they do. Highly recommended for those readers who like action and a kick-ass mystery.

Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman – I thoroughly enjoyed Goodman’s earlier work, Lake of Dead Languages, so picked this one up when I happened upon it in the library a few weeks ago. It seemed to have all the elements I like in a story, so I gave it a shot. Sorry I did. I knew immediately I wasn’t going to like this book because Goodman resorts to a literary convention I really, truly don’t like — alternating chapters between the present time and an earlier time. I find that incredibly disconcerting and find myself reading all the chapters about one time, then reading all the chapters about the earlier time. Weird, I know. Anyway, just in case any of you don’t mind the alternating space-time thing, here’s a brief synopsis from Publisher’s Weekly:

  • An isolated Victorian mansion in upstate New York is the backdrop for Goodman’s latest literary mystery, which stars a debut novelist and her fellow residents at the artists’ retreat Bosco. Ellis Brooks has been accepted to Bosco primarily because her first novel is to be a fictional account of the mansion’s mysterious past; while there will be no deaths during her stay, there’s spookiness aplenty, as well as several 1893 murders still begging resolution. Goodman’s narrative alternates between Ellis’s first-person present and 1893. Coincidentally-or not-two of Bosco’s other guests are also working on projects related to the mansion. But they turn out to be little more than convenient accessories as Ellis, the daughter of a psychic (and possessor of certain powers of her own), unlocks clue after mystical clue to secrets long buried by the mansion’s original owners. As great a player as any is the mansion itself and its creepy (and possibly haunted) gardens. Is this an updated Victorian drawing room mystery or a romance novel/crime fiction-cum-ghost story? Never mind. Enjoy the atmosphere. And enjoy the ride; its twists and turns mesmerize, even if they don’t surprise.

Creepy Reading

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The Old Willis Place: a Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn – It’s been awhile since I read Hahn’s earlier ghost story, Wait Till Helen Comes, but that story made such a shivery impression on me that I had to read this new one when it came across my desk the other day. And I wasn’t disappointed. Hahn has woven another brilliantly frightening story, this time revolving around Diana and Georgie, two siblings who live like wild children in the woods behind the crumbling old Willis mansion, and who are hemmed in by certain rules and boundaries around the place, all dating back to when “the bad thing” happened. We meet Diana and Georgie as they hide in the bushes, awaiting the arrival of the new caretaker and his daughter, who Diana immediatley wants as friend. As the story moves on, we learn more about Diana and Georgie and their relationship with Lilian Willis, the old lady who died in the mansion, but whose spirit is said to haunt the place. As Diana and Lissa, the caretaker’s daughter, become friends, Diana lets Lissa in on a terrible secret involving a locked storeroom in the basement of the Willis place. The secret is uncovered and bodies are removed from the house, which sets in motion a final confrontation between Diana & Georgie and Lilian.

Although I figured out pretty quickly that Diana and Georgie were ghosts, I was still compelled to continue reading until I learned the truth about “the bad thing.” One thing I’ve always liked about Hahn’s work is the theme of forgiveness that runs through them. That theme appears here again, as Miss Lilian explains her actions to the children and Diana forgives her. Plenty of shivers up the spine, but also a suitably redemptive ending. I read this one in a few hours and passed it on to Liz. She’s been reading it all day.

Weekend Readathon


Well, I did it again. Spent the whole weekend reading. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we were at Black Lake in a cottage with no phone, limited TV, and no computer. Or that it rained…and rained…and rained some more. Here’s my haul…

The Valley of Secrets by Charmian Hussey – I wasn’t sure about this one because the blurb on the back didn’t say much about the story other than that it involved an orphaned boy who suddenly finds out that he’s the only beneficiary in a never-before-seen great-uncle’s will. But it takes place in Cornwall, which is, as any folklore lover knows, one of the most mysterious places on earth. We first meet Stephen Lansbury as he’s just finished a course in botany and is fretting over whether to return to the children’s home where he grew up or set off on his own. An elegant letter from Postlethwaite and Postlethwaite arrives, which brings Stephen to an odd interview with an ancient lawyer nestled comfortably in an office overrun by a jungle of plants. Bertie Postlethwaite informs Stephen that his great-uncle Theodore Lansbury has left him an estate in Cornwall, and Stephen should be getting on there right away to “take care of things.”

With a train ticket and 100 pounds from Mr. Postlethwaite in his pocket, Stephen heads to the wilds of Cornwall. There he finds gates that mysteriously open, overgrown grounds, and an empty but spotless manor house. As he explores, Stephen begins to notice things. Like the strange “woomp, woomp” calls in the forest, the fact that the house has no electricity, that some of the rooms have thick layers of dust all over everything while others are spotless, the odd hammocks hung in the library and in a room upstairs, and the creepy feeling that he’s being watched. Eventually, Stephen finds his great-uncle’s journals and becomes privy to a grand adventure had by his uncle and his friend B. As the days and weeks pass, Stephen comes to realize that his uncle brought part of his adventure home with him, a revelation that solidifies when Stephen finds an injured animal of a type he’s never seen before. He nurses the animal back to health, and is eventually led by the animal to find the greatest secret of all.

I confess that I am a sucker for stories that involve mysterious houses, unexpected inheritances and great secrets, so this book captivated me immediately. As I read, I felt like I was gently being led down a path and at the end I would find a fabulous gift. And that’s just what I found at the end of this story. The events unfolded at exactly the right pace, and the characters were all wonderfully drawn. The only thing I didn’t appreciate was the author’s occasional tendency to preach about the destruction of the rainforest. Although the topic was certainly pertinent to the story, the facts were presented awkwardly and didn’t really fit into the narration. All in all, though, this was a lovely, gentle story…give it a try.

Gothic: Ten Original Dark Tales – I always take a book of short stories with me on vacation, and this new one just jumped out at me when I was picking out books last week. Some of my favorite authors like Joan Aiken, Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix and Vivian Vande Velde writing my favorite genre of story? Oh yes, this was coming with me. But, as often happens with short story collections, this one is mixed at best. There are a few great stories — particularly Lungewater by Aiken, Morgan Roehmar’s Boys by Vande Velde, and The Prank by Gregory Maguire — but most of the entries in this collection are not fully developed and don’t stand on their own as short stories. The Stone Tower by Janni Lee Simner for instance, would be much better in a longer form. The same is true for Gaimin’s story, Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire, which was scary as far as it went…but it should have gone further. If I had to pick the best story, meaning the one that totally gave me the creeps, it would have to be Morgan Roehmar’s Boys by Vande Velde. The end of that story totally shocked me and made me put the book away for a little while and go out in the sunshine…what little we had on Saturday, that is! This is an okay collection. Nothing great, nothing horrible, but all pretty readable.

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck – I’ve been reading Peck since the Blossom Culp days and he always delivers a good story. A Year Down Yonder made me laugh out loud, and so did this one. Of course, you know I picked it up because of the title. After all, how could I resist a book that takes place in a town that had a librarian named Electra Dietz? Although libraries and library science students play a big part in the story, it really all belongs to Eleanor “PeeWee” McGrath, who operates a garage with her big brother Jake. It’s the early 20th century and automobiles are just becoming an accepted form of transportation, and women are driving as often as men. Four refined but forward-thinking women arrive one day in a lovely Stoddard-Dayton automobile and promptly have a flat in front of PeeWee’s garage. Although she fixes the flat, PeeWee has no idea that these women will turn her world upside down. The story is typical Peck — lots of laughs, goofy characters, and wonderful language. I was particularly taken with this exchange between Irene Ridpath, the forward-thinking library science student, and PeeWee:

  • “Grace, Lodelia, and Geraldine? They’ll soon be reporting for duty [in the library]. Presently, they are floating on Lake Maxinkuckee in canoes with beaus.”

    “Beaus? What are they?”

    “Suitors. Gentlemen callers. Fraternity men with ukuleles.”

    “Oh.” I strove to picture this. “Are they spooning?”

    “Or reading aloud,” Irene said.

If you like Peck, you love this story. He’s beginning to remind me of Norman Rockwell — instead of painting those goofy slices of early American life, Peck writes them.

Sorcerors and Secretaries by Amy Kim Ganter – Cute but not terribly original graphic novel.