Friday, August 31, 2012

The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone

Okay, I'm pretty sure Allison is going to keel over from surprise when she sees that I FINALLY posted something to this blog! I told her I would eventually get around to it. And look, I did. :-)

A mom of a good friend of my oldest daughter contacted me at the beginning of the summer and asked if we might be interested in doing a book club with the girls this summer. I wholeheartedly replied YES! And it turns out her younger daughter (the same age as my younger daughter was participating as well). At first, I was thinking the books we picked would be books our incoming third graders would read themselves. But once she sent the book choices to me, it was apparent the books would be above level and we would read aloud to them. This actually worked to our advantage because the younger girls (incoming first graders) would hear the story as well and could participate easily. The first book we read was ELLA ENCHANTED (I will fully review this book in a separate post). And the second book we read was The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone.

Having the museum background that I have, and having visited the Art Institute of Chicago probably close to 20 times in my life, I suggested this book for the girls to read. Mostly, because I was DYING to read it! I believe the first time I visited the Art Institute I was probably about 12 or so--about the main character's age--and I remember LOVING the Thorne Rooms. And ironically, I don't remember the last time I looked at them when I visited the museum.

In the story, two sixth graders, Ruthie and Jack visit the Art Institute on a field trip and happen to meet a nice museum guard while visiting Gallery 11, the Thorne rooms. The Thorne rooms are 68 rooms created by Mrs. James Ward Thorne between 1932 and 1940. Ruthie is fascinated by the rooms and wishes she could shrink down and visit them personally. Not long after she thinks this, she and Jack find a mysterious key laying on the floor of a corridor while the guard is giving them a tour. She magically shrinks down and is able to enter the rooms! This begins a grand adventure where Ruthie and Jack visit pre-revolutionary France and Topsfield, Massachusetts during the Salem Witch trials. They are able to meet real characters from history on their journey and discover part of the truth behind the key and its magical tie to the Thorne rooms.

This was an absolutely FANTASTIC read for both my first and third graders. They were completely engaged the entire story. They wanted to keep reading to hear more. We got MINIATURE ROOMS: THE THORNE ROOMS OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO by Fannia Weingartner from the library. That way when Ruthie and Jack visited various rooms we could look through the library book and see exactly what they were talking about. Now, I'm sure you can google images of the rooms as well, but there is something about NOT using a computer to see them that appeals to me. 
All the girls in the book club as well as the moms LOVED THE SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS. It created great discussion about foreshadowing and character development. Also, history, art and museums. I cannot recommend this book highly enough! And although it is very nicely wrapped up in the end, there are several things unanswered. And in this case, it is fabulous that there are more answers to be found because the author turned this into a series! We can't wait to read STEALING MAGIC, the second book in the series.

Anyone who loved the Magic Tree house books and the way they tie in history in fiction will love to read this as an older child. And I guarantee you will be planning a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the rooms in person! We're heading there over Christmas break this year!

Source Disclosure: We purchased this book for our personal library.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Picture Book Thursday: Lemonade in Winter

LEMONADE IN WINTER: a book about two kids counting money by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Holly usually does Picture Book Thursday, but Random House sent me an e-galley of this title, and Lilah and I enjoyed it so much I'm posting a review. It is freezing outside when Pauline decides to open a lemonade stand. No, make that lemonade, limeade, and lemon-limeade! Her little brother, John-John eagerly joins in, while their parents warn that no one will be outside in this weather. Pauline and John-John are undeterred, and head to the store after ransacking the couch cushions for quarters. They come up with twenty-four quarters, enough for lemons, limes, sugar, and cups. A lovely illustration lays this out visually, with the quarters needed for each item beside that item. They get to work and set up their stand...and no one is outside. They try a number of strategies to attract customers, including a cute little song that is repeated on several pages. They are not bothered by the dearth of customers and appear to be having the time of their lives as they happily bellow out their lemonade song, John-John does cartwheels, and they reduce the price in a lemonade sale. Once the lemonade, limeade, and lemon-limeade run out, they total their earnings, and Pauline is dismayed to realize that they spent more than they earned! John-John helps her find the bright side to this entrepreneurial failure, and the story ends with Pauline's very concise, entertaining explanation of American currency for John-John.

I read this with my five-year-old daughter, and we both loved it. We loved the soft, muted illustrations, which include sly details like John-John assembling puzzle pieces under the table before the children head outside. I have tried to get my child interested in the values of coins, to no avail, but she sat rapt through Pauline's explanation (in which she says that nickels are confusing and she wishes they were purple or something). The story is utterly positive, from the moment the kids start their project in spite of their parents' gentle warnings that winter is not the best time to sell lemonade, and the looks of joy on their faces as they attempt to lure customers are priceless. The entrepreneurial spirit, the brother-sister joint project, the creativity the children display at their stand (rewarded by their bemused neighbors), and the lesson that profit isn't the highest value would have made for a wonderful story even without the clear, engaging math lesson! Seriously, my child has shown zero interest in the value of coins, but she was hanging on every word as Pauline explained it to her little brother. Available September 11. I recommend pulling it out on a cold, snowy day when the children are getting cabin fever!

Source disclosure: I received access to an early electronic edition of this title from Random House Children's Books.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Plucky Heroine and Gothic Creepiness? Yes, please.

CHARLOTTE MARKHAM AND THE HOUSE OF DARKLING by Michael Boccacino: Charlotte Markham is the widowed governess at Everton, home of the handsome widower Mr. Darrow and his two sons. When Nanny Prum is murdered, Charlotte takes on a greater role in the boys' lives. She reluctantly agrees to take the children through the fog to the mysterious House of Darkling, where their dead mother reads them strange bedtime stories and a host of mysterious creatures is revealed.

Charlotte is not simply a pawn in this game; she reasons out whether it's better for the children to see their mother or not, and she considers the complex reasons for her fascination with the House of Darkling. After all, she has lost family members, too; if Mrs. Darrow can reappear, why not Charlotte's parents or husband? The more she learns about this strange place, the more wary she becomes, until she finds herself in a contest of wills with the master of the House of Darkling, and if she is not equal to the challenge, more innocent humans will die.

Boccacino invokes a delightfully chilling air of Victorian Gothic creepiness throughout the novel, but what I enjoyed most was that he constantly surprised me. This is an homage to Victorian horror, but it is not constrained by those conventions; rather, Boccacino gives his boundless imagination free rein. The creatures we meet in The Ending, the land where the House of Darkling is situated, are extraordinary. For example: "It was about the same size and shape as a grapefruit, but before he could get a good look at it, he glanced up at me, clearly frightened, sensing that something was wrong. The fruit quivered, and with a wet, tearing sound it began to unroll from the inside out, the air laced with the scent of peaches as the thing in his hands untwisted its arms and legs from the pulpy interior of its body and wrenched its head free from it's shell. A baby's face blinked at us with pale blue eyes as Paul dropped it on the ground with a look of utter terror, backing away, his gaze transfixed on the thing as it fell onto its back, protected by what was formerly the leathery skin of the fruit." You don't see that every day, even in horror novels.

Charlotte herself is not a meek Victorian governess. That she is a widow sets her apart from the usual virginal girls in that role. Beyond that, she is conscious of her longing for Mr. Darrow and its impact on her decisions. Her formidable nature is hinted at in her discipline of two unruly boys: "'It's nothing to me if you want to kill one another,' I told them. 'I imagine that it would be much easier to care for one child as opposed to two. But I daresay your father would be furious with whichever one of you murders the other. If violence and murder are the methods you choose to use when dealing with family, then we can only surmise the tactics you might use when dealing with your peers would be that much worse. We would be forced to lock you away in the attic for the good of the village. I don't believe that such an existence would be a very pleasant one, but then it's not up to me to make your decisions for you.'" Her humor and assertiveness translate surprisingly well to a life-or-death struggle with otherworldly beings. I would have liked to have seen more of Charlotte's inner thoughts with regard to her dead husband and to Mr. Darrow. Her inclinations aren't very clearly drawn out; one moment, she wonders if her husband could come back from the dead, and the next she is daydreaming about the next Mrs. Darrow. It's a bit of a muddle, but the creepy atmosphere, snappy dialogue, and surprising otherworldly elements more than make up for this deficiency.

Highly recommended to any reader who enjoys creative horror or Victorian gothic settings.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley courtesy of the publisher.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Giveaway of Live Through This

Head on over to Mindi Scott's blog, where she is giving away an advance copy of her second book, LIVE THROUGH THIS...along with a stuffed giraffe and a mystery gift.

Friday, August 03, 2012


SCONE ISLAND by Frederick Ramsay: I don't ordinarily pick up a mystery series in the middle (or in this case, on the eighth book), but I have been known to when the subject of a particular entry intrigues me. In this case, the allure was an island off the coast of Maine. Since I've been fascinated with Maine most of my life (despite the entirety of my Maine-related knowledge having been gleaned from Stephen King novels and episodes of MURDER SHE WROTE), a mystery set on a remote Maine island sounded fantastic. And parts of it were, so perhaps I shouldn't complain.

There is good stuff here, in the eighth entry in the Ike Schwartz series (which begins with ARTSCAPE). Ike and his probably-future-fiancee Ruth have a delightful rapport, with witty noir-inspired banter that is a joy to read. You can hear Bogart, except when so many sentences end with "See?" - and then you hear Jimmy Stewart. Either way, it's fast-paced and funny. Here's an early slice:

"Is it just me or has the whole world gone nuts?"
"A little of both, I think. If I had to choose, I'd go with the world, but that's only my take. So, the problem is what? The eggs too cold, too runny? Coffee is...what? Too strong, too weak, too sour, too hot, what? Or is it the company? What's the problem, Goldilocks?"
"Not you, Schwartz, and not breakfast. Breakfast always smells good, even when it isn't. The eggs are...yellow and the coffee is brown. What more could I possibly expect from a cop who cooks?"

The tight-knit community is well-drawn, too, and descriptions of the landscape evocative. The problem is that the plot is half bad spy novel and half cozy mystery. I like spy novels, and I like cozy mysteries, but the mash-up doesn't do it for me. Ike is a current sheriff and former CIA agent, so his involvement in a murder investigation while on vacation is plausible by cozy mystery standards. But the spy bit just doesn't ring true. I have to wonder if Ramsay's spy-related research extended only to James Bond films, and maybe Mission: Impossible. The snappy dialogue that works so well between Ike and Ruth is entirely implausible between the CIA guys. The backstory that is slowly revealed is not only convoluted and overly drawn out - it's boring. I couldn't bring myself to care about the spy plotline, which was unfortunate since that took up the biggest chunk of pages. Ike and Ruth, I loved. Ike and Ruth on Maine island, I loved. Ike and Ruth and a murky spy operation type thing with too many players and too little logic...not as fun. A murder on an island is basically a locked-room mystery waiting to be told, but Ramsay dragged us off the island and into the CIA too frequently to be immersed.

I marked several passages where the spy nonsense is particularly ridiculous, but it feels mean to just start plopping them into the review. I liked Ike and Ruth enough to look into the first book in the series, but if every entry has this spy stuff in it (and I love spy stuff - I've read every John LeCarre), I'm not interested. I would enjoy Ike and Ruth in a real cozy mystery, especially a locked-room one in such a compelling locale.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley from the publisher through Netgalley.