Horror in the Hollywood Hills

41qdvcova2l Famous Last Words, by Katie Alender (2014)

Opening line: “Nothing glittered.”

Hollywood isn’t quite like Willa was expecting. She and her mom have recently moved across the country to live with her new movie-producer stepfather, Jonathan, deep in the Hollywood Hills. In fact, Jonathan’s mansion was once home to another Hollywood hit, late actress Diana Del Mar, whose death may or may not have happened at home. Shortly after arriving in Tinseltown, Jonathan warns Willa about a recent murder, the fourth in a line of serial killings of young actresses. But since Willa isn’t an actress, no problem, right?

In the meantime, Willa’s been dabbling in some paranormal activity. Two years ago her father died after a sudden heart attack, one Willa is pretty sure she brought on. Since then, she’s been trying to contact her father to apologize. So far, she hasn’t been able to reach him, but when strange things start happening at the Del Mar Mansion, she begins to think she may have made contact with someone else. Someone who is trying to tell her something. Someone who knows something about the Hollywood Killer.

This is not something I would usually pick up. But it’s another SC Junior Book Award nominee, and one that I’ve had three students recently tell me was “SO GOOD, MRS. PATAKY.” While I probably wouldn’t use all caps in my description, I can understand why they would. Let’s just say I only read this one at night one time, because it LITERALLY KEPT ME AWAKE THE ENTIRE NIGHT even when I put it down after about 100 pages. (School was rough the next day, ya’ll.) Although there’s nothing particularly gruesome or “too-scary-for-middle-school,” I was so creeped out by this almost the entire time. Let’s be honest, my scare threshold is pretty low (the last horror movie I watched was a good 6 years ago), but I feel like what Alender does, she does well. In very cinematic scenes, the reader is there with Willa in her terror. I seem to be in to paranormal mysteries lately (see: The Screaming Staircase, The Diviners, The Name of the Star, all of which I loved), which seems strange to me. If someone asks me what genre I like to read, I usually say historical fiction, or dystopias, or fantasy. But never paranormal mystery. Here’s to branching out, exploring and getting hooked on new genres. May your reading life never get stale!

Creepy, engrossing, although without much depth. Great to hand to that constant barrage of students who want “something scary.” 1.5 stars

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All the cliffhangers

16101054SYLO, by DJ MacHale (2013)

Opening line: “It was the perfect night for a football game. And for death.”

Oh boy. Let’s talk about a cliffhanger. Right from the very beginning.

Ninth-grader Tucker lives in a peaceful island town off the coast of Maine where no one is concerned with much more than lobster festivals and football games. In fact, it’s at one such Friday night game that the star of the football team drops dead moments after making a spectacular touchdown. Then later that night, Tucker and his best friend Quinn are out on a bicycle joyride to work off the weirdness of the evening, when they experience something out of this world. A strange shadow giving off an eerie melody hovers just off the cliffs where Quinn and Tucker watch, before it explodes.

And that’s only the beginning of the crazy mess. Soon the President is putting the island under a quarantine and a special military unit called SYLO has taken control of the island. But no one is giving them any answers. And the answers they are giving don’t make any sense. As aggravating as this is for Tucker, I swear it was just as aggravating for me, especially when we reach the end of 400 pages with still no answers. This may appeal to fans of Maze Runner, as I got the same sense in that one and had to keep reading the whole gosh darn series, despite the fact that I didn’t really like it. I liked this one more, but still find it annoying that I am compelled to read the remainder of the series to figure out what the hell is going on. If someone wants to spoil it for me, that’d be fine.

1.5 stars

Speakeasies and Creepy Crawlies

The Diviners, by Libba Bray (2012)

Opening Line: “In a townhouse at a fashionable address on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, every lamp blazes.”

Guys! My wish was granted! I’ve found a Libba Bray book that I loved! I should probably read more mysteries (maybe specifically paranormal mysteries?) because it seems like every time I do, I eat them up.

The prologue sets the stage in this one, with a delightful seance gone terribly wrong. Using a trusty old Ouija board, the members of this party conjure the spirit of Naughty John, our villain for the tale. Now, my friends were seance experts growing up, hosting at least one at just about every sleepover for the years between 1999-2001, but we never used a Ouija board. I don’t know if I could have handled the pressure.

Chapter 1 brings us to our sort-of main character, Evie O’Neill, outgoing party girl recently banned from her little town in Ohio to go live with her uncle in New York City, right at the height of the roaring 20s. (Hindsight for Mr. & Mrs. O’Neill – sending your naughty daughter to the Big Apple where all the speakeasies are might not have been the best move.) Uncle Will, more affectionately known as “Unc” is the proprietor of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, known to the masses as The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. As someone with a special knack for the supernatural, Evie is worried that Unc will discover her secret talent, her ability to divine truths about someone just by touching an item belonging to them. But when a young woman is found murdered in a particularly gruesome scene, and Will is called in to help, Evie starts to think her talent might just be useful.

What makes this book so great — besides the SUPER CREEPY murder scenes and delightful time period elements — is the vast cast. I said “sort-of main character Evie O’Neill” because there are multiple main characters at play here. As opposed to many third-person narratives that focus on one primary character’s perspective, we get the perspectives of a whole slew of people, and they all seem equally important. I can’t wait to see how they continue to connect and overlap throughout the series. Book two, Lair of Dreams, hit shelves a couple weeks ago.

This one reminded me a lot of a couple others I’ve loved in the past year, The Lockwood & Co. series and The Shades of London series.

2.5 stars

Sibling rivalry with a twist

Vanishing Girls, by Lauren Oliver (2015)

Opening line: “The funny thing about almost-dying is that afterward everyone expects you to jump on the happy train and take time to chase the butterflies through grassy fields or see rainbows in puddles of oil on the highway.”

Like many sisters who are close in age, Nick and Dara are totally different yet totally inseparable. Nick, the older more level-headed one, is often in the role of keeper of her slightly younger wild-child sis. That is, until the terrible car accident that changed everything. The accident left Dara with awful scars and a rift between the girls. Things were also weird leading up to the accident, though, after Dara started kissing Parker, Nick’s best friend.

It’s summer and Nick has recently returned home after time away after the accident and learns of a recent missing child, Madeline Snow, who disappeared out of the family car. When Dara doesn’t show up to her family birthday dinner, Nick initially thinks she’s just messing around. But then signs seem to point toward connections between Madeline’s disappearance and Dara’s. And despite their recent estrangement, she will do whatever she has to to track her down.

I have to say, I’ve listened to almost all of Lauren Oliver’s novels on audio with the delightful narrator of Sarah Drew (April Kepner of Grey’s, or if you’re more inclined, Hannah Rogers of Everwood), but this one has a whole cast of narrators (none of which include Sarah), and for some reason that threw me. I struggled to get in to this one, partly because of that, partly because the different formats used to tell the story (regular narrative, internet comments, diary entries, emails, chronology jumps) are difficult to translate to audio. I might have picked up on the twist at the end more quickly had I read it in print, but instead wrote it off as confusion. Because there IS a big twist at the end, one that made me wish I had the book to go back and look through for clues. Reviewers have compared it to We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (which I thoroughly enjoyed) for this reason.

Not my favorite Oliver novel, but not bad. 1.5 stars.

An elephant-sized mystery

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult (2014)

Opening Line: “When it comes to memory, I’m kind of a pro. I may be only thirteen, but I’ve studied it the way other kids my age devour fashion magazines.”

It’s probably not a surprise that anytime I’m in an airport, I’m bound to spend at LEAST a half hour in the cramped book store, perusing all the new books. Ever since becoming a junior high librarian, my perusing shelves of books (particularly adult books) has significantly declined. All through the school year, my TBR stack is like the Mount Everest of tween and teen lit, so the only time I really peruse is in the airport! And that’s where I first read the dust jacket for Leaving Time.

Combine reliable Jodi Picoult and elephants, and you’ve got a book I will probably enjoy.

This one focuses on Jenna Metcalf, 8th grader whose mom disappeared 10 years ago after a horrible accident at the elephant sanctuary owned by her family. One woman wound up trampled and one woman (Alice, Jenna’s mom), disappeared without a trace. Since then, Jenna has been struggling to put the pieces together and find out what happened to her mom. She seeks out the help of two people: Serenity Jones, a used-to-be-famous psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, one of the former detectives on the case who has changed his name and his career path. These three misfits have a lot of questions about that night a decade ago, but the answers are not what they expected.

I was totally surprised by the twists in this book, although I had the distinct feeling that I shouldn’t have been after they happened. Summer is a great time for mysteries, I’ve decided, because you can stay up late reading/listening, and keep listening as you are doing all the mindless things you have to do in the summer, like mow the lawn (which I did for the first time tonight!), or, as I tend to do in the summer, pack up your entire life and move. I also loved learning all about the elephants, obviously. Elephants are my favorite, partly because, as she shows in this book, their personalities and emotions are so similar to humans. Jodi Picoult did a lot of research for this novel, including spending time at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. And guys, they have live Ele-Cams! Bookmark it! (Pro Tip: don’t try to watch at night, because it will be dark.)

As I said, I can always count on Jodi to pull out an emotional and heart-felt story, and this one was no exception. 2 stars

The grass is always greener… or creepier.

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (2002)

So this book is supposed to be awesome, or so I thought. But, frankly, I just thought it was weird. So, so weird.

Young Coraline is bored over summer vacation. Her parents are busy doing other things, her neighbors are quirky and never get her name right, and there’s no one to hang out with. One day, she finds a small, locked door in the parlor, and when she asks her mom about it, her mom shows her that the door leads to a wall of bricks, an old, boarded up passage between the apartments. But later, Coraline opens the door again to find the bricks gone, and the passage clear. When she wanders through, she doesn’t find the empty next door apartment, however, but an exact replica of her own apartment, complete with a man and woman who look just like her parents. Except for the eyes: their eyes are big, black buttons.

And it just gets creepier. This “other mom” is terrible, although she puts on a good facade. The rest of the book is Coraline exploring this new “other” world, realizing her “other” mom has trapped her, and trying to escape to her real home.

I’m not really sure what the purpose of this book was. A lesson to make your own fun? Or to be happy with what you have? To give kids nightmares?

What ever the purpose, I don’t really feel like it was successful (unless it was the last one). Can someone explain this to me, please?

Weird and scary, but somewhat captivating… 1 star, I guess.

Answering all the mysteries

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg and 13 other authors (2011)

Eighteen years ago, Chris Van Allsburg published The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a 32-page picture book, with 14 titled pictures, each labeled by one line of text. Suppooooosedly, Van Allsburg found the drawings in the office of one Peter Wenders, a children’s book publisher, who told him they had arrived in the hands of Harris Burdick, who brought them in to see if the publisher would like them and promised to return the next day with the full stories. BUT THEN HE DISAPPEARED, never to be seen again. So, knowing a good thing when he sees it, Van Allsburg published them drawings on his own. (You know this is a big ploy, right? There’s no Harris Burdick or Peter Wenders. You know this.)

Seventeen years ago, as part of a second grade class assignment, I finished writing Mr. Burdick’s story “Under the Rug” with a genius, twisting narrative, including some aliens.

Last year, Jon Scieszka rewrote my story, in a mildly less exciting way. Thirteen others, including Van Allsburg himself, Sherman Alexie, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Lowry, and Kate DiCamillo, contributed to complete Burdick’s fantastical and incredible book. This. is. awesome. It’s like my childhood dreams come true. I think my favorite is Stephen King’s expansion of “The House on Maple Street.” It’s imaginative and powerful and complicated and full of heart.

One thing: In most libraries, it seems to have a big “J” label on the spine, placing it in the children’s section, and I’m not sure it belongs there. I’m not saying there aren’t kids who would appreciate it, but I think this book is more directed toward the adults like me, who grew up with Harris Burdick, imagining the possible stories to accompany his pictures. Some of them are pretty dark, pretty elaborate, and the narratives may go over kids’ heads. But if, like me, you grew up with these images floating around in your head, go get this short story collection and indulge yourself.

2 stars