Sunday, August 5, 2012

Witches, Ghosts, and Graves, Oh My!

A quartet of spring/summer books that aren't very sunny at all. Instead they take us into cursed villages, haunted houses, haunted sleepovers (really!), and graveyards. Not to mention dungeons. And watch out for the terrible, horrible bra shopping!

The Brixen Witch by Stacy DeKeyser

This is actually a Pied Piper retelling, with the Pied Piper being an assistant to the dreaded witch who lives on the mountain. Our hero is a boy named Rudi Bauer who makes the mistake of picking up a gold coin high up on the mountain that belongs to the witch. When he gets home to his little village, he is followed by a curse. The coin sings to him and he dreams strange things. His grandmother knows the old ways. Rudi denies taking something from the witch, but his grandmother cleverly cautions him just the same:
Then Oma shook a finger at him, and the fire flared on the hearth. “But I’ve seen her messenger. And by the saints, to this day I wish I’d seen the Devil instead. That thing you did not take? Get rid of it. Carry it back up the mountain and leave it there. Do it today. Better yet, do it now. The weather is turning, and once the snows begin, no one will be venturing up that mountain until spring. You don’t want to be haunted every night from now until spring, do you?”
A chastened Rudi tries to return the coin, but loses it in the snow far up the mountain. When the dreams stop, he thinks he’s okay, but then the village is invaded by rats. The villagers pay a rat catcher whose work is overturned, and next a creepy guy with a pipe shows up demanding the very gold coin Rudi used to have as payment for his work. Now what will Rudi do?

One of the most interesting things about The Brixen Witch is the different villagers and the way they interact. For example, we learn that the village has spent all its money paying an ordinary rat catcher, which is why they have trouble coming up with the gold the Pied Piper demands. Another nice twist is the strange piper's relationship with the witch.

DeKeyser includes some authentic historical rat catching details, which may engage young readers or make a few of them gag.

This is an uncomplicated, very much middle grade tale, a relief from the many angst-ridden YA fairy tale retellings of recent years, to tell you the truth. I was a little thrown by the climax and events surrounding it, but overall, I found the book quite likable. Just right for the third through sixth grade crowd as a late summer or back-to-school read.

And it sounds like Rudi will be back for another fairy tale-based adventure in DeKeyser's next book!

Watch this very nice news interview, in which author Stacy DeKeyser explains that she wanted to give the old story of the Pied Piper a happy ending.

The Whispering House by Rebecca Wade

A ghost story that starts out scarier than it ends, which is probably just as well for its middle grade audience. Or rather, this is a mystery that’s also a ghost story. Apparently the two main characters, Hannah and her friend Sam, have teamed up before, in a mystery called The Theft and the Miracle. Now Hannah’s family has temporarily moved into an old, hard-to-rent house across town, and the creepy happenings start piling up.

It seems a little girl named Maisie used to live in the house, and she died as a child, perhaps killed by witchcraft. Locked rooms, an old calendar page, a book of fairy tales, bad dreams, a weirdly marked doll, poltergeist-type activities, and Hannah’s own drawing of the dead girl combine to make Hannah jump and worry—and try to solve the mystery of what really happened to Maisie. The weirdness escalates and escalates until Hannah and Sam have their own haunted encounters with Maisie. Then they really do figure out what’s going on and lay the ghost to rest. Here’s a description of the doll:
The blue ribbon was a problem, however, and it took a lot of coaxing before the tight little knot yielded at last. Then Mom unfastened the dress and gently pulled it over the doll’s head. “Oh!” The exclamation came from both Hannah and her mother at once. They stared at the cloth body, naked save for the black boots. “What’s happened to her?” asked Hannah. “Don’t ask me!” All over the back, stomach, arms, and legs were dark yellowish-brown stains. Each was roughly the size of a small coin, and they were evenly spaced.

As I mentioned, the pacing of this book is intriguing. The tension builds and builds in a truly shivery way. I was well and truly creeped out as a reader, and then the author took the story in an unexpectedly sweet direction. The story works, certainly, just not the way you think it will. And Wade draws on an intriguing bit of history in creating her resolution.

A nice ghost story for kids who like to be scared, but ultimately comforted rather than left scared. And an early Halloween contender, though of course you can read it any time of the year. I can see looking for Hannah and Sam’s first adventure and watching out for their next one.

Small Medium at Large by Joanne Levy

A rollicking story about a girl who is struck by lightning and can then talk to dead people. No, it’s not Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You series, it’s a middle grade book from newcomer Joanne Levy.

There’s a lot to enjoy about this cheerful story. For one thing, main character Lilah Bloom and her BFF are Jewish, as is Lilah’s crush, Andrew Finkel. For another, in many ways this is a middle school story about the daily adventures of an ordinary girl. It just happens to have a few ghosts thrown in.

Levy has some clever ideas about what to do with her premise. There’s Lilah’s grandmother, Bubby Dora, who brings along a fashion designer from the early twentieth century. The funniest scene in the book is when these two ghosts insist on taking Lilah bra shopping. And of course, she winds up dropping her bag o’ bras on the mall floor right at Andrew’s feet.

We wind up getting experiments in kissing from Lilah (no tongue, we're assured) and experiments in dating for her hapless father. Apparently Bubby has mostly stuck around to play matchmaker to her depressed divorced son.

You’ll find that this book sometimes reads like a TV sitcom, as in the following scene:
“Dad!” I said again. He turned back toward me, abandoning the juice. “What is it, Lilah?” It was like he had completely forgotten what I had said. “You do need to be dating. I hate to be mean, but look at you, Dad. You’re thirty-eight, single, and you spend every evening at home, drinking your tomato juice and either playing Scrabble with your daughter or watching TV by yourself. You’re in a rut. You need to get out there before it’s too late.” “I like playing Scrabble with my daughter.” He almost sounded pouty. But it was a good thing; it meant he was actually listening.

A more poignant part of the book is that Andrew has lost his father, and he’s not about to believe Lilah when she starts hearing from Mr. Finkel and trying to pass the guy’s messages on to his son. Lilah also runs into trouble with a mean girl and then a mean ghost, but friendship, sleepovers, and girl talk solve these problems in the lead-up to a school fashion show.

So yes, there are ghosts, but mostly Small Medium at Large is a fun girl book for middle schoolers. This upbeat tale will probably go over well with readers in grades four through seven. Oh, and do keep an eye out for a clown ghost. Because who wouldn’t like to have a ghostly clown making balloon animals at her birthday party?

Check out the author's book trailer!

The Grave Robber’s Apprentice by Allan Stratton

This book reads like a fantasy adventure. And in fact, Canadian author Stratton throws in allusions to the Greek myths, Shakespeare (at least two plays), The Wizard of Oz, Oliver, and even the New Testament. Though there are very few actual fantasy elements in that Everything Is Explained, the story feels picaresque, macabre, and fantastical throughout.

We begin as we should, with a baby adrift in a jeweled chest:
Years ago, in the Archduchy of Waldland, on a night when the wind was strong and the waves were high, a boy washed ashore in a small wooden chest. The chest took refuge in a nest of boulders at the foot of a cliff. It swayed there for hours as the surf crashed on either side, threatening to sweep it away to be gobbled by the deep. The boy in the chest was a babe, scarce a year old. He wore a white linen cap and nightshirt, and was bundled tight in a fine woolen blanket. The sound of the waves was a comfort to him after the screams he’d heard before the chest had been sealed. Now, as the surf threatened to destroy him, the infant dreamed he was rocking in his crib.
 The baby even has a birthmark shaped like an eagle on his shoulder. But the man who finds him shrugs it all away. He is inclined to leave the baby to die and just take the chest. But instead it occurs to Knobbe—scavenger and grave robber—that this child can grow up to work with him and then care for him in his old age. Knobbe won’t admit that the baby has won his soft heart. And so the baby begins a new life as Hans, the grave robber’s apprentice.

Hans makes an okay grave robber’s helper when it comes to digging and all, but he balks at actually touching the bodies. Knobbe, who feeds, clothes, and yells at the boy, tells him it’s time for Hans to rob the graves completely. Hans is torn.

Meanwhile, we read about the trials of a girl named Angela Gabriela von Schwanenberg, “the Little Countess.” She loves to put on plays, and she includes Hans as a character called “the Boy.” But she is horrified when she and her parents are thrown in a locked carriage and taken to Archduke Arnulf’s castle. The man is a regular Bluebeard, marrying young wives and then having them murdered after a few weeks or months. Angela is next on the list, and her parents are supposed to give Arnulf all their wealth as a dowry. Naturally.

In planning her escape, Angela introduces us to a villain who’s just as bad or worse than Arnulf—the Necromancer. He is blind and looks like he’s half dead. He surrounds himself with a herd of awful little boys he calls Weevils. When push comes to shove, he will take care of himself first, betraying anyone who gets in his way. Including Angela.

Eventually Angela and Hans go on the run together, with Arnulf and the Necromancer hot on their heels. They meet the Wolf King, the Hermit, and a band of circus performers and their bears. Angela is determined to rescue her parents from Arnulf, while Hans is determined to help Angela.

This book is written by a guy, and it includes a lot of gruesome stuff that 10-year-old boys are likely to relish, such as the following:
The Necromancer floated into view, feeling his way with a long wooden staff. A wraithlike creature, hairless and pale, his willowy frame was draped in a dirty velvet shroud. His wears were withered; his nose and lips rotted. He had no teeth; no eyes. His empty sockets were empty caverns rippling with shadows from the lamplight. “How long have you been there?” Angela whispered. “Since the moment you thought of me,” the Necromancer replied. With long, bony fingers, he withdrew two bird eggs from his dirty shroud and placed them in his eye sockets. “I’ve been watching you since you left your castle, my crow’s eyes circling the night sky.”
Later, after Angela gets away, the Necromancer hunts for her, flicking his gray, lizard-like tongue, catching her scent in a graveyard. Another striking line is this bit near the end of the book: "We'll stuff him in a bone barrel, gagged with a dead rat." There's really quite a lot of this sort of thing.

Although Stratton very deliberately explains away as much magic as he can, there are over-the-top and creepy things going on, just the same. Much of it is exhilarating, such as when our hero and his allies escape from an attack by tobogganing in coffins or when the bears help them exit Arnulf’s dungeons.

On a side note, I was very pleased with how Knobbe is kept in the story and even honored for his rough but dedicated attempts to raise Hans. In a departure from most storytelling, Han’s somewhat repulsive adopted father isn’t limited to being a one-dimensional villain.

This is a colorful tale, full of adventure, horror, comedy, and heroism. Not to mention a prophecy that echoes Macbeth’s doom, though this one may be even more satisfying, considering it involves a sea of bones. Elements like Hans’s identity are given away well in advance, but I don’t think you’ll care much. You’ll be too busy following Hans and Angela at a breakneck pace as they flee the Necromancer and the evil archduke.

Watch the author's book trailer here.

Note for Worried Parents: This book is recommended for ages 10 and up. The gory elements, especially the way Arnulf slaughters and memorializes his child brides, are pretty horrific. Yet you’ll find that The Grave Robber's Apprentice is funny and playful at the same time.


Ruth Donnelly said...

I want to read The Whispering House! Wanting to be scared, but not stay scared--that describes me pretty well as a child (and even still). I loved Small Medium at Large, it was both funny and heartwarming.

KateCoombs said...

It's a nice balance, Ruth. I think you'll like it. And I'm glad you liked Small Medium at Large--just a lot of fun and basically a kind book.

Kim Aippersbach said...

Small Medium at Large is such a great title! It sounds fun, and I love kind books. Thanks for mentioning that Allan Stratton is Canadian: I'm trying to review at least one Canadian book a month, so it's always good to hear of more I should read.

KateCoombs said...

Hey Kim! Yes, there's a cadre of great Canadian writers, and they deserve some recognition. (The title is definitely a hoot.)