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1. Review: An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Razorbill. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

An Ember in the Ashes
The Plot: It's been 500 years since the Martials defeated the Scholars. At various times Rebellion has been threatened, but the Martials always destroy it.

Laia, 17, is a Scholar. The once studious and education people are now banned from anything hinting at learning. Laia lives with her older brother, Darin, and her grandparents, until the night their home is raided by the Martials and their terrible agents, the silver-faced Masks. Her grandparents are killed, Darin is arrested, and Laia flees into the night.

She stumbles upon rebels who agree to help her free her brother, for a price. Go into the heart of the Martial training ground and spy on their Commandment. To do so, she'll have to pretend to be a slave. But for Darin, she'll do it.

Elias, twenty, is a Martial who has been trained to be a Mask since the age of six. Except he has a secret, kept hidden and deep. He hates the death and torture and violence of what he his, of what he is trained to do. He doesn't want his face to be forever silver. He dreams of escape, even though it will dishonor his Grandfather, but anyone caught running away is brutally executed. As each day goes by, he finds himself increasingly bound to the Martials and to his friends and wondering if the only escape is death.

The Good: Read this book. Now. The only down side of reading this book ASAP is that the sequel is out next summer, and you're going to have to wait that long to find out what happens next.

Read this book. It is a wonderfully complex setting, influenced by the Roman Empire and other ancient cultures. Sometimes a cultural setting such as the one in An Ember in the Ashes either downplays or ignores the consequences and reality of its setting. This book does not do that; it is a brutal, violent world and both Laia and Elias have been shaped and formed by that brutality. (For those who wonder about the violence on the page, I'll put it this way. A book can describe a death in a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter -- this book goes for the sentence or two. Does it lessen the horror of that death? No, it doesn't drag it on for pages and pages.)

Laia masquerades as a slave, but, no, that's wrong. While Laia is spying, she is actually a slave and all that implies. She is owned by the Commandment, who can do anything she wants to the slaves she owns. Laia is beaten and whipped; her name is taken from her. Other slaves have been scarred, branded, mutilated. The possibility of sexual assault and rape is real. So she has to survive both the change in status from free to slave but also figuring out how to be a spy for the rebellion.

Elias has been trained since the age of six to become a Mask, like his mother and grandfather before him. (His mother is the Commandment.) He has seen children whipped to death; he has been beaten; he has killed. He has followed orders. He has become one of the top soldiers. And he hates it. One of the things I love about An Ember in the Ashes is that while it's easy to hate the Martial class and all that Elias is and represents, the reader can't help but like Elias and root for him. To like his friends and understand his loyalties.

If you're wondering, because there is a girl and a boy and it's a young adult book, whether there is a romance -- well, yes and no. Again, complexity! While Elias may look at Laia and see a pretty girl, Laia looks at Elias and sees a dangerous soldier. Elias also is the type who sees Laia as a pretty girl who is a slave so is someone who for that reason shouldn't be touched (not a sentiment towards slaves shared by others.) There's a young man who is a rebel who Laia begins to have feelings for, and Elias has feelings towards another soldier, a young woman, and he's trying to deny them. So this is more a rectangle than anything else, and very realistically done given the different positions of power people have.

The Martial Empire is HORRIBLE. I wouldn't want to live there. But, again with reasons I like this -- when Laia learns more about the history of the Scholars, she realizes that her history and society is more complex than good/bad, vanquished/conquered. Elias looks around him and doesn't like how the Empire treats people, and he may be alone in this. It's hard to tell, because to confess such things would to betrayal, punishment, torture, death. His friends, though, are also likable, though part of this may be that we only see them in a context where they aren't arresting and killing and torturing, though we know that is what they have been trained to do. And truth be told while the ways of his training are harsh and I'm running out of words that mean "brutal," it's also realistic in terms of what is needed to create the perfect killing machine -- and that appears to be the sole aim of Elias's training and schooling.

The ending -- the ending!!! Don't worry, it's a great ending for a first book in the series in that it both works well as an ending for this book but there is also a great lead in to what will happen in the next book. I don't feel cheated or frustrated; I just feel MORE MORE MORE.

And the plot is so great that I don't want to say a word about it.

One more thing. The women in this story! Of course, there is Laia, who will do anything to save her brother but has been fairly sheltered up to this point. Poor, sometimes hungry, but always loved and protected by her family. Her strength is in her ability to survive, to love, to do what it takes.

Then there is Helene. Female soldiers are only accepted once in a generation, and so she is not just the sole female in her class, she's the sole female in her school. She has to be twice as good, ignore twice as much, as those around her. The friendship between Elias and Hel is one of equality and respect.

And Elias's mother, the Commandant. She was the female soldier of her generation. And as the head of the school that trains and forms soldiers, she is the one that every student fears. She is the one every slave fears. And with good reason: punishments, torture, and death all take place at her whim.

There is the Lioness, a legendary head of the Rebellion, brilliant but ruthless and willing to sacrifice anything for her cause.

And there are Laia's fellow slaves, Kitchen Girl and Cook, who have survived years in the Commandant's house, watching other slaves come and go. (And by "go" I mean die, whether at their own hand or the result of the Commandant's brutality.) There is more to each of them . . . .

One more thing. With this book there is always one more thing. I recognized the ancient Rome references in names and family structure; Tahir's guest post at the Perpetual Page-Turner goes into that research, as well as the research needed for everything from weaponry to the names of the other nations and groups in the book.

ARGH. I want to revisit this world, even though I was so worried about Laia that at times I could read no more than a few chapters at a time. My heart just couldn't take it.

OF COURSE this is a Favorite Book of 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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2. Review: Kissing Ted Callahan

Kissing Ted Callahan (and Other Guys) by Amy Spalding. Poppy. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

Kissing Ted Callahan (and Other Guys)The Plot: Riley and Reid walk in on our their band mates Lucy and Nathan -- to their surprise, Lucy and Nathan are together. Together-together.

Riley is stunned, especially because Lucy is her best friend and Lucy never said a word. Riley and Reid both resolve to pursue love (and kissing and maybe even sex), and to share each detail, and to help each other out.

The top of Riley's list is her crush, Ted Callahan; Reid's is Jane.

How successful is their plan? Well, there will be kissing. Of Ted Callahan, and other guys.

The Good: This is primarily Riley's story, but because Riley and Reid share notes and progress reports and suggestions in a Passenger Manifest journal, and part of that is written by Reid, it's both their stories.

Kissing Ted Callahan is about Riley shaking herself into action. Oh, she's hardly passive. Her goal is rock star, so her time has been taken up with the band. And her best friend is Lucy, and she's friends with Reid and Nathan, but she's been satisfied, kind of, with that.

Riley isn't satisfied anymore. And confiding in Reid, instead of her usual Lucy, helps push her to do things like offer Ted Callahan a ride home. Or kiss Garrick. Or call the number of the cute boy she met at the CD store. Riley goes from zero love interests to three. Kissing Ted Callahan is about Riley (and Reid) navigating teen age dating, figuring out the difference between like and love and lust and love, wondering just what is right to tell someone if there isn't any real commitment yet.

Reid's story in some ways mirrors Riley's The first girl he pursues turns out to already have a boyfriend, and Riley doesn't really make the connection to her own situation. The next girl is -- well, it's a bit funny, because Reid makes a list of potential girls. Ones who talk to him, ones he likes, who has potential? Unlike Riley, he's not acting on a crush. It's more that he wants someone, and there is something very sweet and likable in how he keeps himself open to any possibility rather than requiring a crush first. It's also very honorable that he pursues a girl he likes being with, ignoring that his friends don't really like her.

At one point, rather late in the story, their Passenger Manifest goes missing and Riley and Reid have to deal with the consequences. For Riley, that ends up being the consequences of not having conversations and not talking. Kissing and sex may create a connection but it doesn't replace talking. Yes, there is a sex scene,  butwhile Riley may be kissing three boys there is only one that she really likes. No, I won't say who.

What's nice about the emphasis on communication is that it is clear from the beginning that Riley's failure at spoken honesty, and desire to not confront, isn't something that just happens with boys. Remember Lucy? Part of what drives the whole book is Riley's continuing inability to talk with her best friend, Lucy. Part of Riley's growth is realizing she has to have the tough conversations, whether it's about the status of a friendship or of a relationship.

I also like how this explores attraction and relationships (both friendship and more), and that Riley (and Tom and Garrick and Milo) is not just about who she is dating or kissing but is about creating real friendships and how those friendships are made. Lucy, Riley, and Reid have known each other since kindergarten and those types of friendships sometimes means someone has a hard time making new friends -- they don't have the skills. Riley is developing those skills, though admittedly mainly because she is seeking a boy. And mainly because she assumes that Lucy's changed relationship with Nathan means that Lucy's friendship with Riley is different.

Finally! It's also about a band, and I loved how being part of the band is used for the story, from being what ties Riley and her friends together, to her passions and interests, and also the time it takes outside of school. Their dedication is clear.

One final thing: this may be a spoiler, so stop reading if any type of spoiler bothers you. This is not the type of book where Riley looks at her good friend Reid and sees him in a different light while he has an unrequited crush. This is about two people who are friends, whose friendship grows stronger but whose friendship remains a friendship.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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3. Review: A Night to Surrender (Spindle Cove)

A Night to Surrender (Spindle Cove) by Tessa Dare. Avon. 2011. And sequels. Library copies.

The Plot: 1813, England. Victor Bramwell is a lieutenant colonel in the army, and he's been wounded, and all he cares about is getting back into the army. So he'll do anything to prove that he is fit to return.

The Plot: 1813, England. Victor Bramwell is a lieutenant colonel in the army, and he's been wounded, and all he cares about is getting back into the army. So he'll do anything to prove that he is fit to return to service.

Susanna Finch lives in Spindle Cove, along with her father. Spindle Cove has earned itself the nickname Spinster Cove, because it's so well known as a bit of a dumping ground for ladies who don't fit into society. It's full of spinsters, ha ha ha.

And Susanna wants to keep Spindle Cove that way. She doesn't want people to know the truth about Spindle Cove: it's not a last resort. It's the best resort; a place where women who don't fit into society, or have been excluded, find a home and acceptance.

Bram's mission to start a local militia is going to be tough -- even more difficult because, well, Spindle Cove is full of women. Not military service ready men. Will Susanna be able to get rid of Bram and his soldiers in time to save Spindle Cove?

The Good: Spindle Cove! The shy and the introverted, but also the outspoken. The brainy. They are welcome and embraced and accepted at Spindle Cove -- at least, for now. A Night to Surrender is the first in a series, each about a different woman of Spindle Cove. Each there for a different reason. And, because of these reasons, it means the heroines of the series are each pretty unique, and independent. And it means that the heroes are those who value the unique. Spindle Cove is about women learning to be themselves, to be confident, and finding men who prize that. It's a feminist series, set in a time that isn't very feminist. The combinations are also interesting, because what matters are who the people are not what they are. Examples: a beautiful young woman and the local blacksmith. A Duke and a serving girl from a pub.

Spindle Cove is also very funny. I confess, I didn't see it as much in A Night to Surrender, but the second, A Week to Be Wicked, had me laughing out loud. And after that, I saw a lot to laugh about.

Also: hot and spicy!

While Spindle Cove is about a safe place, it doesn't hide that the world itself can be harsh. There is a reason, after all, why a refuge like Spinster Cove is needed. The backstory in A Lady by Midnight shows what happens to a young woman without resources or family, who has no options, but who still has to live and to provide for her child.

I have really enjoyed this series; so far there are four books and two novellas, with another novella this December and a new book next year. One nice thing about my recent romance reading is finding series like these, in which there are plenty of books in the series so I can power read one right after another.

 Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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4. Review: Infandous

Infandousby Elana K. Arnold. Carolrhoda LAB. 2015. Review from ARC.

The Plot: It's the summer before senior year, and Sephora Golding is 17. She lives in a one bedroom apartment with her mother, still model beautiful, and young -- only 35.

Seph is figuring out her way to adulthood. She's going to summer school because she failed geometry. She's considering her well off aunt's offer to move across the country for her final year of school. She's working on her art, and has a few pieces around Venice Beach. She's resisting her mother's suggestion that she get a part time job. And she's trying not to think about Felix, the older man she met earlier this year --

Felix. Who she is trying not to think about. Older, handsome, and it was her choice to spend the night with him....

The Good: A terrific book, with so much packed into it.

Sephora is telling us her story, but is also telling us fairy tales and myths, stories of lost girls and terrible things. She is telling us her own story, warning us that in real life fairy tales don't have happy-ever-after endings. She is telling us her own story  . . . . eventually.

Seph's story is of a girl born to a beautiful, single, teen mother who has made her own way in the world. Her own way is this rundown one bedroom apartment, going to night school. But here is one of the great things about Infandous: yes, it's the story of a girl with a beautiful mother. And a family that is living paycheck to paycheck. And it's also the story of a parent and child who love each other very much. There is no jealousy or hatred. And Seph doesn't complain, isn't bitter about where they live or how they make do.

But Seph is trying to figure out herself, her sexuality, her desire, and the person she has to measure herself against is a beautiful mother who still turns heads. And while she loves her aunt and her cousins, she sees what they have and thinks about how, when her mother was pregnant and unwed and disowned by her parents, her aunt picked her parents and didn't fight for her sister or her sister's child.

And meeting Felix -- meeting Felix was a chance for Seph to try out a different persona. So she said her name was Annie and that she was nineteen and a college student, adding years to her age. And she went to bed with him, willing and eager. "No one held a knife to my rib cage," she assures us. "I put myself in that room." And at the time, she thinks how different it is with Felix than with the other boys she'd been with, that there was warmth, that "I was a flower and I opened, I softened, and I ripened and warmed. I felt, I thought, like a woman rather than a girl, and as he found his way inside me, I wondered -- fleetingly -- if this was what sex was like for my mother." But now, with distance and knowledge, she is cold. And wonders about fault.

Seph is figuring out her life, and her friendships, and her own needs and feelings. Things happen, in life, like in fairy tales -- and you can decide what to do with that, with what happens to you. A person can be damaged, but a person can remain whole. And this perhaps is what I liked best about Infandous: that love cannot save one. And that bad things happen, or people do bad things, but one can still have that love that while it doesn't save, it keeps one whole.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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5. Flashback January 2012

I enjoyed doing Flashbacks to what I reviewed in the past, but I got out of the habit, unfortunately.

So, now I'm playing a bit of catch-up. So, I'm concentrating on recaps of what I reviewed two or more years ago.

Here is January 2012!

January 2012

Finding Somewhere by Joseph Monninger. My review. "two teenage girls go on a road trip, and there is no text or subtext that this is something dangerous that girls shouldn’t do; that the girls need to do x, y, or z to ward off dangers, as if it’s the responsibility of the girls not to be victims. When I got to the end of Finding Somewhere and realized this — that Hattie and Delores are not victims, are never victims, are not victimized to make a point or to show their power, I was overjoyed. It may be silly to be happy about what a book is not, but there it is — this is about two girls who are strong and funny and beautiful. And they are that way from start to finish."

Strings Attached by Judy Blundell. My review: "After reading Strings Attached, you’re going to want to some of the great films from the late 40s and early 50s. Blundell recreates that New York world, so well you think you can open a door and step into it. It’s in the little details, of the clothes, the food, the hair. Kit manages to be of her time, but also “modern” enough to be identifiable to the modern reader. She has a dream, she’s chasing that dream, but she also loves a boy. As for the dream chasing, it’s not like she’s doing something unthinkable at the time; many young women went to New York with similar dreams of fame and success."

Across the Universe by Beth Revis. My review: "the ship Godspeed is a world of its own, both as a physical place and as an entirely new culture. While Amy, her parents, and others are sleeping through centuries of travel, others take care of the ship and prepare for the colonization. Amy awakens into this world, a world radically different from the world she (or the reader) knows. She is alone, awake fifty years before she should. It turns out, she cannot be refrozen: instead of waking up with her parents, she will wait, alone, and when they wake she will be older than her parents. Both her mother and father are needed for when the the ship arrives at the planet, so neither can be unfrozen now. Ironically, Amy did not have to go with her parents; she could have stayed back on Earth with family. Instead, she gave up her life as she knew it to stay with her family. Now, Amy doesn’t have them. She is alone; and only Elder offers friendship and understanding."

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. My review: "At the beginning of Lupita’s freshman year at high school, her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Mami has always been the one who held their large family together. Lupita, as the oldest, has always been responsible. Now even more falls on her shoulders. Like the mesquite, Lupita will survive and grow stronger."

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn. My review: "Cooking! Flinn, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu, sees a woman in the foodstore stocking up on preprocessed and frozen meals and convinces her to try a few easy, simple substitutes. This leads her to wondering people don’t cook more and why they rely on prepackaged food; Flinn then puts together a group of people who don’t cook, for various reasons, and conducts a series of lessons starting with the right way to use a knife. Will they be transformed into fearless home cooks? Will the reader be?"

StarCrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce. My review: "Digger/Celyn is fascinating; a girl who has taken care of herself by being a pickpocket and thief. A girl who hides many things: who she was before she became a thief. Who she is now. Digger has only two loyalties: to Tegen, her partner, who died in that ill fated robbery; and to herself. She is smart, she is talented, she takes care of herself. Meeting up with Meri and her family changes that. Meri, four years younger than Digger, is so trusting, so nice, so sweet. Meri’s family, too, accepts Digger. No; they accept Celyn, and her story of running away from a convent. That should have been a clue, that Meri’s family was willing to take in a runaway from the religious faction controlling the country. I have always had a soft spot for stories about thieves, especially those who turn out to have a heart of gold. Bonus points when the thief happens to be a girl."

The Name of the Star (The Shades of London) by Maureen Johnson. My review: "Rory Deveaux is spending her senior year at Wexford, a boarding school in London. Meeting new people, figuring out a new school system, being in London instead of a small town in Louisiana, should be amazing.  And it is — except for the murders. Murders that are mimicking the infamous 1888 Jack the Ripper murders. Rory and her fellow students try to get on with life and school; all that changes when Rory sees someone suspicious by the school, someone the police think may be their Prime Suspect. Someone only Rory saw. Is Rory at risk?"

Froi of the Exiles: The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta. My review: "The Lumatere Chronicles (Finnikin is the first book, Froi the second): a rich, fully detailed fantasy series where war and elite power games have left scars on both the land and the people. For fans of Megan Turner Whalen. Also, given the ages of the main characters (late teens), these fall into “crossover” territory: bookstores and libraries would serve their readers by putting this in both the YA and adult sections."

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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6. Review: Audacity

Audacityby Melanie Crowder. Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

AudacityThe Plot: 1903, Russia. Clara Lemlich is a young teenager, yearning for education, for the words and knowledge on the page, for what they can bring. She dreams of more. Perhaps she could go on to school or university, but those are dreams beyond the possible for a young Jewish girl.

Over the next six years, her life changes in ways she couldn't imagine. A violent pogrom pushes her family to take the long journey to America, and when she hears that education in free she dares to hope for herself. Those hopes are too big: she is from a religious family where the men are scholars and the women work, and so Clara finds herself working in the New York garment trade, in a sweatshop.

Clara's own experiences as a girl told what to do and what to think, combined with the abuses and injustices she sees at the sweatshop, combine to forge a woman who demands change for herself and others.

The Good: This novel in verse is stunning and spectacular, based on the life of the real Clara Lemlich.

I like historical fiction that shares a story I didn't know; and while I was vaguely familiar with the story of the unions in early twentieth century New York, this gave a new and fresh perspective. The story of a young woman who worked in the sweatshops and knew that she and her co-workers deserved better. She knew that being women, being teenagers and young women, being immigrants, speaking English poorly or not at all, were not reasons to treat those women poorly -- to force them to work seven days a week, ten hours a day, with no breaks for the toilet, in unsafe conditions, with clocks manipulated to over-work them, to subject them to sexual harassment and unwanted touching.

And that shows the second thing I like about historical fiction: yes, it shows us a specific time and place in the past but it also tells us something about the present. It's a reminder that the protections in place for employees are not something that happened because employers were generous and kind; it did not happen because individual employees successfully argued for and negotiated terms and benefits for themselves. It happened because of unions; and it happened because people stood together, even at great personal sacrifice.

The back matter in Audacity reminds people that the abuses lived by Clara and others are still being lived by workers. It may also help readers to look at today's news and reports on labor and the workplace and benefits and working conditions, and wonder, what do I want my workplace to be like? What can be done to make that happen?

One last thing: I really liked how Audacity worked as an story in verse. Telling a story in the past requires details and world-building, and I was particularly impressed that Audacity showed me life in a shtetl, in a New York City tenement, in a workhouse, all with just enough words.

Oh, two more things. First, after reading Audacity (which is the story leading up to the 1909 Uprising of the 20,00 strike), read Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin (my review), which is the story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Second, this is a Favorite Book of 2015. And I really hope I see it on a lot of best lists.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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7. Review: The Scorpion Rules

The Scorpion Rules (Prisoners of Peace) by Erin Bow. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Books. 2015. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Our world, about 400 years in the future. For various reasons (wars, water shortage, environmental changes) an AI (artificial intelligence) named Talis seized control of, well, everything, and first forced peace on the world by blasting a few cities.

Then Talis realized there was a better way. That destroying towns wouldn't create world peace. But hostages would. Child hostages, to be specific. It's simple: take a child of each leader. Hold onto them until they are 18. If the leader declares war, the child hostage's life is forfeit.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart is the Duchess of Halifax and the Crown Princess of Pan Polar Confederacy. She has been a hostage since the age of five. She is now sixteen; if she can make it until eighteen....

But her country has water. And others don't. And she knows that one day, sooner rather than later, war may be declared and her life may be forfeit.

The Good: Alright, let's cut to the chase: this is a Favorite Book of 2015. Hell, I'll go on record and say this is easily a top ten book. I'll go even further: I'll be damn disappointed if this isn't on awards lists and best lists at the end of the year.

And to say why this is so, why I am so passionate about this book, I'll be talking spoilers. So fair warning: stop now if that bothers you, read The Scorpion Rules, then come back.

The Scorpion Rules is a dystopia, or, at least, a dystopia for those children of rules and leaders who are sent away to be held hostage, knowing that if their parents pick country over blood they will die. They have been taught history to understand their role and their history, including ancient history to give a broader, perhaps colder, perspective on people and war and violence.

Greta, like her friends and fellow hostages, have been taught about their role; have been taught to accept it; have been taught to not fight back. To not resist. To not escape.

And then a boy comes to their school, a boy whose grandmother just gained power so he's been sent as hostage, a bit older than most, and less royal, so less prepared. Elian.


Yes, it's dystopian; but like I said, at least for this book, it shifts the burden of the dystopia to the upper class, to the privileged. And the Children of Peace, the hostages, realize both their burden and their privilege. And it's grounded in real history -- the exchanging and taking of hostages has historic basis. (Fans of the TV show Reign will remember King Henry saying he and his brothers where hostages in the Spanish Court. That was true.) I say at least for this book, because we haven't seen much of life beyond where Greta lives, so I can't be sure of how others live. There is a hint that Talis controls and meddles with the lives of others, but it's unclear just how much of an impact that has.

This dystopia also makes sense; it's coherent, enough is given to explain why and how this system was accepted and evolved. It's also thoughtfully and realistically diverse. The Children of Peace come from all over the world, from all types of countries. Some, like Greta, are their for hereditary reasons -- she is the crown princess, born into this world, born to be a hostage. Others, like the Children from what was the United States, are there because parents have been voted into/taken charge by other means. They have no titles; they may arrive at the school older, with their status sudden and unprepared for. That is Elian.

And it's also grounded in science fiction, not fantasy -- the AI that controls the world, Talis, and the link between humans and computers is a scientific element of the story, not a fantastical one, and it's not just the push for the story. Talis is present throughout, lurking in the background, moving to the forefront.

Also, the threats are real. The Scorpion Rules starts with a child hostage being taken away because his country declared war. There is a graveyard by the school. There is torture, there is manipulation, not nice things happen again and again.

Now, on to the love triangle. Which isn't. There is new boy Elian and there is some sort of connection or attraction between him and Greta, but more important than that, is that Elian shows Greta another way. That submission and acceptance is not the only path in life. That no matter what, there is choice.

And then there is Greta's best friend and roommate, Xie. Greta has not just accepted the way she has been raised, the future she's been told to expect. She has also buried most of her emotions and feelings, avoiding emotional risk. And yet when Elian helps provide the catalyst for her to open up, and change, and question, it also helps her unlock her frozen feelings for Xie.

See? It sounds like a triangle because there are two people -- but it isn't. It so, so isn't.

One last thing: Greta may have accepted her part in life and politics; she may have tried to avoid certain deep attachments; but she is also a royal. Born to be a hostage, born to live a role, but also born to take her place if she lives past 18. Born to be a leader, and at her school, she is a leader. She's not a follower. She's not passive, even if to someone like Elian, the Children of Peace hostages look passive and accepting.

So, go, read it, and like me, look forward to the next book. Because I have no idea what will happen next -- and that? That is a great feeling to have.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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8. Review: How to Love

How to Love by Katie Cotugno. Balzer & Bray. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Three years ago, Sawyer LeGrande ran away, leaving behind family and friends. Leaving Serena Montero, his girlfriend.

His pregnant girlfriend.

Reena has put the pieces of her life back together, including making peace with her disapproving father. Instead of her dreams of college, she's raising a two year old, going to the local college, working. She has a new boyfriend, she has good friends.

And Sawyer comes back to town.

The Good: A romance with a lot of appeal.

The story flips back and forth between Sawyer and Reena's intense, high school love three years ago and the present reality of betrayal, hurt, and attraction. So the reader gets two stories, one of first love and one of second chances.

I liked Reena because, well, she was in a tough place and she did what she had to do. When she got pregnant, and decided to have and keep the baby, she reorganized and adjusted her dreams. Though I kept thinking, if she had had more support from the families, if there was less judging and more compassion -- but there wasn't. And she's at a good place when Sawyer returns.

Sawyer, who by leaving town managed to escape the consequences Reena had to face and had to live with, is back. As I said, this is also a second chances love story, with Sawyer and Reena working through their feelings and family complications, as well as learning about who each other is now, not who they were. Not who they remember them as.

With the ages of the main characters, and the two stories at two time periods, this has appeal for both teen readers and New Adult readers.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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9. Review: The Bunker Diary

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Carolrhoda Books. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Linus, sixteen, wakes up, alone, in room. No good deed goes unpunished: he was helping a blind guy get some stuff in the back of a van, and, well, turns out the guy wasn't blind after all.

And now he's in this bizarre place, with six bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and an elevator. There is no way in or out except that lift. And there are cameras and microphones. And he's being watched.

And then someone comes down in the elevator: a nine year old girl. And he realizes that there will be more, to fill those bedrooms....

The Good: The Bunker Diary takes place in the secure bunker where Linus finds himself trapped. One of the few things that is there is a journal, and Linus writes in it, and that's what we're reading.

The diary of his days, trapped. His memories of how he got there, his life before.

I'll be honest; this is not usually the type of book I'd read because, well. Sometimes I think I know what I like. But then I listen to other people rave about a book, people I respect, and I say, OK, let me try it. And usually I'm glad I did. This time? So glad I did.

The Bunker Diary is stunning, unforgettable, unpredictable, depressing, sad. While gradually we learn more about Linus's story, at the start he's a runaway who has been living on the streets. So he's a bit street smart, and has guts, and isn't stupid, even if he has been very alone. He's resourceful.

But the person who kidnapped him, and the five others who end up joining him, is also resourceful. And a planner. Because this is always Linus's story, we never find out the motivation of the kidnapper, of the person who put this all together. We can only guess.

In some ways, this is a depressing book. Because these people are trapped, stuck with each other, and with no real hope of escape. Part of the book is just the monotony of these people, in a small space, trying to get back and survive one more day.

And in some ways, it is a book that is not without hope. Which is funny to say, because this is a hopeless book. But Linus, who is no saint, is also no sinner. And he is kind. When nine year old Jenny shows up, Linus looks after her, does his best to protect her.

But there's only so much he can do. About being in the bunker. About Jenny. About the others who join them, who bring their own dangers. About the man who has trapped him there. Who watches. So he writes down what is happening and what he remembers and what he thinks he remembers.

Despite how heart breaking this was (or maybe because of it?), this is a Favorite Book Read in 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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10. The Five Best Things...

I went to KidLitCon in October 2015, and had a great time!

I wrote up something about it for School Library Journal: The Five Best Things About KidLitCon.

So if you want to know more about KidLitCon, check out my article.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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11. Film Review: Crimson Peak

This week, my niece and I went to see the film Crimson Peak. (Rated R).

We were both looking for something scary; and we were both quite pleased with the film. She, because Crimson Peak delivered on it's promise of horror and gore; me, because it was a Gothic romance.

It's the early twentieth century, in Buffalo, New York, and Edith Cushing is more interested in her writing than in balls and society. Also, she sees ghosts -- or at least, saw one ghost, once -- the ghost of her dead mother.

These are not shadowy ghosts, wisps of smoke, faded photographs of dead people. These are rotting corpses, blood and muscle and sinew, in the colors of death: the black of rot, the red of blood. They are bony fingers and sharp fingernails, skeletons and skulls of horror.

So Edith is a bit of a modern girl, and in this she is loved and supported by her father and her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael. In the first frames one can almost see how Edith's life is supposed to play out: the doted on child of a rich father, then the friend becoming love interest, both supporting her writing but their love and comfort keeping her in her safe life, her safe town.

And then they come to down: Sir Thomas Sharpe and his sister, Lucille. When Edith hears of Sir Thomas visiting, she is dismissive, looking down on what she assumes is a spoiled aristocrat. But then she meets him and all I can say is : Tom Hiddleston, in full-on dazzling charm mode, with an accent. Dr. McMichael - Charlie Hunnam without beard, tattoos, or bike - is no competition, especially since Sir Thomas is new, and Alan is known, plus Alan's mother and sister are kind of bitchy. Thomas's sister Lucille may be a bit cold, but she's not as bad as Alan's women folk.

Part of what attracts Edith is she is the wallflower, even though it's by choice. She sits at home, reading and writing, rather than going to balls, and her father is happy with that because it protects her. He sees Thomas as a threat. Her father complains to Edith that Thomas is seeking money and investors, has gone to several countries in his quest for funding, yet his hands are soft. Thomas is soft. Edith sees that Thomas wears good but old clothes; she sees him as an impoverished aristocrat, yes, but one who is trying to turn things around. And he - it seems like he sees her as desirable. He wants her. He looks at her like no one else does -- well, except for poor Alan who just can't compete.

Let's cut to the chase. Edith and Thomas marry, and go back to the family's mansion in England, and soon she starts seeing ghosts. And I don't want to give too much away, but it's a ghost story, of course, so who are these ghosts? And what is going on in this mansion, with areas Edith is warned against entering? And it seems like Thomas and his sister have secrets, many secrets -- what are they?

Why I loved this movie: first of all, it's gorgeous. Absolutely beautiful. The clothes, the settings, whether it's a ballroom in Buffalo or the decrepit mansion, it's just stunning. And the mansion -- it's so dark and mysterious and also falling apart, literally holes in the ceiling and red clay seeping through the floors. The red clay! The house is built on red clay and it seeps into everything, seeps up through the ground so it looks like blood. There are barrels full of it, and it looks like barrels of blood. When the mansion first appears, my niece and I were all "OK, I would turn around and walk right out that door."

But Edith stays. She loves Thomas, and sees the romance of it, and has hope. Hope she holds on to, tight, until the ghosts show up. Also -- to be clear -- she is only slowly discovering she is in danger. Things are shared with the viewer that she doesn't see, and I liked seeing how and when Edith would realize.

Edith! Here is the thing: Yes, she was sheltered. Yes, she was blinded by love (or, possibly, lust. I mean, Thomas is dashing and has an accent.). But she's not stupid. She sees things, she puts things together. She is not passive. (It's actually another thing that the niece and I really liked.)

And there is another thing, that the niece liked. Let's just say she appreciates gore in horror movies, and while Crimson Peak is a more a Gothic romance than horror, the deaths (like the ghosts) are gory. Someone is bludgeoned to death, and it's brutal, and bloody, with torn skin and shattered bone. But here's the thing: it was real. And for all the ghosts and dread, there weren't that many murders shown on screen, so there was enough that it made sense and it shocked like it should, it wasn't too many.

Overall? A thumbs up!!

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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12. Review: Of Monsters and Madness

Of Monsters & Madness by Jessica Verday. Egmont USA. 2014.

The Plot: It's 1824 and Annabel Lee, 17, has moved to her father's death following her mother's death. The world of Philadelphia, and her role of daughter of a doctor, is very different from a childhood spent in Siam. She lacks the freedom she had there.

There are secrets in her father's house -- including her father's two assistants, handsome Allan and cruel Edgar. Including her father's scientific experiments.

And there are the gruesome murders....

The Good: I'll be honest: I read Of Monsters and Madness about a year ago, when it first came out, enjoyed it, but just didn't get around to writing anything up.

Then I saw the movie Crimson Peak (review tomorrow) and began to wonder about possible read-a-likes for teens who may go see the movie and want a taste of Gothic horror and romance. And I remembered Of Monsters and Madness.

The setting, early nineteenth century Philadelphia, is wonderfully shown; Annabel is a strong young woman who has been raised away from her father and his family. She wants to connect with them and please them, but her desire for independence and to pursue studying is at odds with their perceptions of what a proper young lady is. Plus, Edgar Allen Poe as a hot young man!

And plus there are references / homages to works by Poe as well as other writers. So this can lead to wanting to read more Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde.

Of Monsters and Madness was published by Egmont USA, which, sadly, no longer exists. So when I went to the author's website to write this post, I was very pleased to learn a few things: first, that it's available on Kindle; second, that for a limited time it is $1.99; and third, that Verday has included the sequel, Of Phantoms and Fury, in the Kindle edition so you are getting two books for one.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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13. Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware. Gallery/Scout Press. 2015. Library copy.

In-a-dark-dark-wood-9781501112317_hrThe Plot: Nora cannot believe it when she gets an invitation to Clare's hen do (aka, bachelorette party.) Yes, they had been best friends ten years ago, in school. But that was before, before college, before, well, everything. They haven't even talked since then.

And now, this invitation.

Nora decides to go. She's just too curious, both to see Clare again but also to discover why Clare invited her. And while Nora is happy with her life, part of her thinks she needs to make peace with her own past.

So she goes.

And things go terribly wrong.

The Good: In a Dark, Dark Wood is an updated, modern version of a cozy mystery that isn't that cozy. It's bloody and violent and nasty. Clare's "hen do" (her pre-wedding weekend party) brings together a handful of her best friends in a remote area of the country. They're in a gorgeous, glass-walled modern house in the middle of nowhere, with just each other for company. Perhaps it's the remoteness, but the party is made up of just about six people. It's small and intimate, which makes Nora being there even more weird.

This is the type of book where you want to discover what's going on on your own; that's part of the appeal. So what can I tell?

The atmosphere is wonderful: partly claustrophobic, because they are all in the vacation house together. But even before then, Nora's life is small. She's a novelist, working at home, so there's no workplace and coworkers. She has few friends. Even her flat is small; she can reach the coffee maker without getting out of bed.

It's also an atmosphere of not knowing. It's Nora's story, and she won't share with the reader why she left school and walked away from her best friend. Not yet, anyway. But it's not just what she won't tell, it's what she can't remember. The story starts with Nora running through the woods and then in the hospital and she knows something bad happened during the hen do but she doesn't remember what. Or to who. And even as she starts to tell about the hen do, these are people she has no history with, save one friend, and of course Clare.

This is creepy and scary. And it's also about manipulation and lies. And the masks we wear.

And about a hen do gone terribly, horribly wrong.

So OF COURSE it's a Favorite Book Read in 2015. 

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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14. Review: Harlot

Harlotby Victoria Dahl. 2015. Reviewed from electronic ARC.

HarlotThe Plot: Caleb Hightower went to the California gold fields to earn his fortune; two years later, he's back, to marry the sweet girl he left behind.

And discovers that Jessica Willoughby, the beautiful innocent he left behind is now a notorious prostitute.

A whore.

The girl he barely dared kiss -- the girl who he wasn't good enough for, so he went to earn the right to court her --  is selling her body to others.

Caleb is hurt and furious and angry. And he'll get his revenge. He'll pay for what she's sold to other men. He'll make her sorry.

The Good: So it's Victoria Dahl, so of course it's hot, hot, hot. And hell the title is Harlot; Jessica has sold her body to pay her debts; so you know this, up front. You know what type of hot you're getting.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Harlot; but wowza, it was both what I expected and also not what I expected. And, also, it's a quick read, less than two hundred pages.

So if you're a fan of Dahl's writing, like I am, all you need to know is yes, it delivers.

And if you haven't read her work, this is a good introduction because it's a standalone, and as I said, it's short, so you can fall for Dahl in a couple of hours.

So now that that is out of the way, the observations that I'll add, the particular details that I adored.

Caleb has been gone for two years, but he hasn't really written to Jessica in that time because he's dyslexic. Oh, given the nineteenth century setting, he doesn't have a name for why it's so tough for him to read or write, but that is the issue. And let's just say that the people he is relying on to keep up his connection and correspondence with Jessica are less than trustworthy, for reasons. I think it's a great way to explain the lack of communication between the two, that led to Caleb riding into town not knowing about Jessica, and Jessica thinking Caleb had abandoned her.

Jessica did what people say. But, of course, there are reasons; there is a story. So part of what is explained is why Jessica did what she did. Which, long story short, if you create a society where you don't expect a woman to earn a living, if you have a world where a woman's options to earn a living are extremely narrow and limited, if society says that a woman without a man (no father or husband or brother) is vulnerable and a target -- well, when a woman has nothing and no one and few resources, she sells the one resource she has. Her body.

But Dahl takes this a step further, which is why she's Dahl, and fantastic. Because what Dahl does next is use this story of Caleb and Jessica to examine views toward sex and sexuality, lust and love, and the virgin/whore complex. Caleb isn't excused for his attitudes; Jessica has her own learning curve. And perhaps because her virtue is gone, Jessica -- who had been raised to think good girls don't like sex because of the time and her class --  is now open to the idea that sex can be pleasurable.

Anyway. Trust me. Read Harlot.

And then, if you're like me, get angry that now there is no new Dahl to read. And look at your bookshelf, at those handful of Dahl books that you deliberately aren't reading so that you still always have an unread Dahl book for when you really, really need it. It's like that piece of chocolate you don't eat, because one day, you'll have to have it.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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15. Review: Jane-Emily

Jane-Emily: And Witches' Children by Patricia Clapp.

The Plot: Louisa and her nine year old niece, Jane, are visiting Jane's paternal grandmother for the summer. While there, Jane learns more and more about Emily, her aunt, who died at age twelve.

Is Jane becoming obsessed with Emily?

As Louisa learns more about the long-dead child, she finds out that the dead girl was willful, spiteful, bratty, mean.

And she begins to realize that it's not Jane who is obsessed with Emily. It's Emily who is obsessed with Jane. And Emily won't take "no" for an answer.

The Good: Jane-Emily holds up remarkably well -- incredibly well - it is still as spooky and scary and terrifying and creepy as it was when I first read it, years and years ago. 

Part of what makes Jane-Emily so brilliant is that it creates a feeling of doom, of suffocation, of fear, with very few actual occurrences. It starts with a young girl who seems to know more about a long-dead aunt than she should, and gradually and slowly that becomes more. A poem she shouldn't know about, a broken doll, a torn dress. But more than anything else, all the people who knew Emily can't seem to stop talking about the dead child. And none of it is good. We aren't supposed to speak ill of the dead, especially dead children, especially your own dead child, so that it's done here again and again, just adds to the myth of Emily. Because if someone is speaking ill, it has to be true, right?

What's also terrific about Jane-Emily and who is telling the story (an adult) is that it allows the book to tease with the idea that there is a logical explanation up until the very end, when everything goes dangerous, wild, and out of control on a rainy night. As an adult reading it, I could almost argue that even then, there is a logical reason for all that happens, with a bunch of emotional caught up in their own myth-creating around a sad, long-dead child.

Almost. But it is so much more delicious to instead believe as Jane and Louisa and the others believe. Once upon a long time ago, there was a strong-willed girl named Emily who always, always got her own way and was never told "no." Being spoiled led to great unhappiness for all around her, and her own death. Angry and frustrated to be dead, she came back to haunt the living, punishing her mother, and driving her father to his death. And now, with a new child living in her house, her room, with her family, Emily wants a playmate. One she'll tease and torment -- and want forever.

Much like my rereading of Wait Till Helen Comes was influenced by now modern sensibilities, so I viewed the parents as almost as bad as the ghost, my reading of Jane-Emily is viewed through a modern eye. I confess, I don't think many children or young teen readers will care that Adam is arrogant, controlling, and obnoxious -- because I think he's clearly an adult and children know adults can be all that, but, like Louisa, they love them anyway.

But what do kids think about the continuing message that the problem with Emily was not that she was some sort of bad seed, but, rather, the results of being spoiled and never disciplined? That a permissive parenting style was the problem? That a child-centered marriage was at fault? (And in a way, being child-centered continues as they all talk about Emily.) I don't think they are going to pick up on it as I did; but I do think that they all know "that kid." The one who gets away with everything, at home and at school, and is a bully and mean and a bit horrid. One reason we don't need many details about what Emily has done is the reader can fill them in, based on the Emilys they know. A kid may not want to be punished or reprimanded themselves, but they see, in playgrounds and classrooms and neighborhoods, what happens when other kid aren't. So I think that is why they will accept the origin story of what created Emily -- and why it is just so scary.

Emily is the kid next door, who is now in your house, and won't go home or go away. And while you try to make her happy, you hope that eventually someone will tell her "no". And that she'll listen.

OF COURSE a Favorite Book Read in 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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16. Jane-Emily, Chapters Twelve to Sixteen

And we're in the final third of Jane-Emily!

Chapter Twelve

Oh dear. So Adam is going away for a week's course in surgery, and it's all and good for him, but here's the thing. He's also all "and I leave tomorrow." And I'm really, you had no notice of this? You had to wait this long to tell Louisa?

And there's a hint of a proposal to come. Martin who, right!

And Louisa is doing some nervous cleaning and long story short, finds something hidden in Jane's mattress, which used to be Emily's, and it's a child's blood oath of marriage between Adam and Emily.

And of course Louisa totally loses it because what 18 year old wouldn't be jealous of and threatened by a dead 12 year old everyone describes as evil and bratty?

And Jane is also losing it, saying Emily "wanted me to do things" and I'm all WHAT THINGS JANE WHAT THINGS. And I like that there is a hint here that there isn't a Ghost Emily but instead some lonely, damaged, insecure women who are obsessed with a dead child, because that child has more personality than any of them. And Jane did those things on her own and blamed Emily.

Oh! The dress, the favorite dress, has been ruined. And based on the timeline, Jane wasn't around, so we can't blame her. Louisa clearly blames Emily.

Chapter Thirteen

Now Louisa is wondering about Jane being the catalyst for what is going on. And I do wonder how much of Emily's haunting are things Jane has done -- but even that works for haunting, because it's what Emily has made her do.

But, but, but, Jane wasn't around for the dress bit! Plus, you can't blame the wind because there was no wind.

Adam proposes! And how funny is it that this book is built around a courtship and proposal?

And Louisa's first reaction is to say I don't know and cry. So Adam goes all he-man and hustles her away and then turns her "roughly" and leads her "forcibly." But why wouldn't Louisa want this in a husband? It is 1912. We haven't seen her father, but everyone around her seems to see her just as wife material. Plus it is a light romance, fairly non threatening.

And Louisa keeps crying and says it's because Emily will hurt Jane and so Louisa shouldn't marry Adam to protect Jane and maybe it's because Louisa realizes that Doctor Pipe isn't that great but she cannot identify why and wow am I over-reading into this.

And the pipe comes out. NO THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEANT.

Oh and here's something else to ponder about how forceful and in charge Adam is; this is the same person who let/liked Emily bossing him around as a child.

Chapter Fourteen

So Jane got herself locked out of the house in the rain, and even thought it's August, it's cold, and long story short, most of our main players are convinced Emily did it to kill Jane and yes, Jane is getting might sick.

"But how does one deal with a little girl who no longer lives." Well, you could call the Winchesters and put out some rock salt and dig up the body and burn it. (What, you're not watching Supernatural?)

So Jane is getting sick and Louisa goes to call Adam but she doesn't have his number because she never telephoned him. What? I guess this is 1912 etiquette for engaged/courting couples?

And then -- and then -- we get this firm position: "Good is still stronger than evil," and "I have no fear of the likes of Emily." Does this mean that Katie doesn't think Emily has killed her brother and father and wants to kill Jane? Or that she thinks Emily is more a memory than a true ghost?

I like how matter of fact Katie is, also reassuring to the reader.

Chapter Fifteen

And Jane, like her aunt Emily, has pneumonia. And it's pretty scary and touch and go, and of course no hospitals because it's 1912 and no one can do anything but sit and wait. (And apparently not call her other grandparents? Because no mention is made of Louisa's parents during this health crisis.)

And it's all terrible and sad and scary and even the weather is getting into it and finally FINALLY Mrs. Canfield does what she never did before and says "no" to Emily: "I will not allow it." She will not allow Emily to take Jane? She will not allow Emily to haunt them all? She will not allow the past to control the present? Whatever, she finally, finally disciplines Emily.

But the ball is glowing!

So Mrs. Canfield goes out and knocks it over and Jane screams and all the scary nature stuff stops.

And Adam is around for all of this but says very little. Is he thinking "goodness the hysterical ladies" or "huh, Emily is real"?

Chapter Sixteen

In a way, the chapter after the last. Because Emily was vanquished by her mother. Is it the mother finally parenting Emily? Is it a guilty mother finally deciding to get on with her own life and not live in the past, be controlled by the past?

Anyway it's all better and happy families!

They're opening windows and letting in light and cleaning out the attic!

And there's some pity for the child who "needed an authority and discipline she never got." Remember, kid readers: Mom and Dad yelling and taking away the WiFi code is because they love you and don't want you to become a terrible ghost.

And then the final wonderful sentence: "None of it could have happened. And yet it did. Or did it?"

And tomorrow, my final thoughts!

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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17. Jane-Emily, Chapters Seven to Eleven

And more on my chapter by chapter reading of Jane-Emily!

Chapter Seven

And another letter from Martin and it's all about Susie Pepper. This is also when I realized that if Louisa has any friends, or is getting letters from anyone other than Martin, she isn't telling us.

Of course, for this book, who really cares about Louisa's life or friends outside the story? Part of the great atmosphere is not just the escalating creepiness and linkage and obsession of Jane and Emily, but also how claustrophobic it all is, with the bulk of the book taking place in the house and the garden of Mrs. Canfield. There are apparently no neighbors with children, no friends. But as I type this up, I wonder.... have the stories of Emily, has Mrs. Canfield's apparent reclusiveness, meant that her house is "that" house in the neighborhood and she has no friends?

Oh, Susie on hearing about Doctor Pipe: "she's sorry you have to go out with old men."

And now more Emily. "You didn't know Emily."

OK, but at this point, what? Her own mother talks down about her, but for what? Tantrums at four because her parents were away? Melting one doll's face? So she's bratty but is she really such a bad seed?

Oh good lord the world is match-making Louisa and Doctor Pipe like there's no tomorrow.

And more food! I want the lobster and fresh bread and coffee! So Adam is cute. And a doctor. And lobster. But man -- obnoxious.

"Emily was the most strong-willed person I ever knew." (So that's why no voting for women?) "It never mattered to her whether something was right or wrong, or whether it might hurt someone else. If it pleased Emily -- that was all that mattered." What I love about this, is it explains to us the problem with Emily. But also, because it's a middle grade book that is more about the atmosphere of terror than the acts of terror, we aren't shown what it was that Emily did that showed she didn't know right from wrong (or didn't care); we don't see who is hurt. Instead, the voices of adults (Louisa, Doctor Pipe, Mrs. Canfield, Katie) repeatedly tell us that there was / is something wrong with Emily.

And we find out more how Emily died: pneumonia. Also, Doctor Pipe smokes again. "I sniffed with pleasure as the first small puffs of smoke floated over the table." Now, I didn't note the pipe smoking either of the times I'd read it before. And I wonder how it would go over with today's audience, when smoking is so actively hated on. (Though pipe smoking, like cigars, somehow is "cool" when cigarettes aren't.) Anyway, I remember quite the few contemporary books of the 70s and 80s when cigarette smoking wasn't just cool, but -- like here -- the smell of it was liked, was a fond memory, was a good connection.

Topic. While I was musing how social standards changes even how we think of a smell, we were finding out that basically Emily did a version of suicide by pneumonia, by deliberately getting herself sick. She did it for attention (specifically, Adam's) but it ended up killing her. That's pretty awful; but here's the thing. The person she hurt was herself. I wonder, much as I love how creepy this book is, and much how it still is creepy, I think a book like this today would have had to up child Emily's harm to others. There would be dead kittens, not melted dolls; and a mysterious death of a neighbor's child, not Emily's own self-inflicted illness.

And Adam remains condescending about Louisa's fears. I think this is deliberate -- not to show show Adam is obnoxious (he is), but to have the reader more easily dismiss his dismissing Louisa's fears.

Also as Adam and Louisa share about their lives, little is shared with the reader about Louisa. The reader knows more about Adam's schooling than Louisa's.

OK and at some point Adam says "I'm a doctor, Louisa" and I have some Star Trek flashbacks. And ugh -- "For a very pretty girl you get some strange ideas." He's so dismissive! And she's judged strictly on her looks! And no one cares. But again, I think this is because the target reader isn't a teen, who would want or expect more, even at the time of publication. It's for readers for who the idea of courtship and marriage is remote and removed enough that a man thinking a girl pretty is enough.

Chapter Eight

"Emily and I both loved her father more than we did each other." And more of the messed up family dynamics, or "why you shouldn't spoil your child." Mr. Canfield died shortly after his daughter -- of a heart attack, in her room.

WOWZA. And apparently Mrs. Canfield both believes in Ghost Emily and thinks she had a hand in the deaths of her father, brother, and sister-in-law.

One other thing -- the way Mr. Canfield treated his daughter is seen as spoiling, and also as a case where his family hadn't had daughters in ages so Emily was unique. Interesting to me, at least, the timeline isn't mentioned. How (if the married nearly 40 years before line about Katie is true) Emily was a late in marriage, unexpected but probably eagerly wanted, child. And while his emotional attachment to her is discussed, neither in text or even subtext is the thought this adult had: just how far his physical attachment went.

Oh, and after hearing some Emily stories all night, in the candlelight Louisa SEES A STRANGE FACE NOT HER OWN.

And then Louisa basically loses her shit and I feel sorry for Jane, to be honest.

Chapter Nine

So basically Emily lives in the ball, or her power is centered there. (But then, how / where did John's accident occur that Emily could be responsible? But isn't part of the terror of the story not whether or not Emily is haunting her family, but whether her family believes they are haunting her, giving her, even after death, the same power she had before?)

Louisa is torn between wanting to believe something is terribly wrong and wanting there to be a logical explanation. Much like the reader of the book. Oh, who am I kidding? Any reader of the book is saying that the logical explanation is Emily is haunting them.

Oh, and a warning -- stay away from Emily's ball! Don't move her ball!

Chapter Ten

"I want to improve my mind -- " Oh, why is that, Louisa? Could his name rhyme with Doctor Pipe?

Though at least Louisa is doing something other than needlework and braiding Jane's hair. Which if this was a teen book would make one go "what?" but for the kid who is Jane's age, reading this book? OF COURSE an adult (and Louisa, while 18, is an adult) is going to be just this boring. And existing just for the children in their lives, to braid hair, and be angry, and be supportive.

And Jane is playing with a dollhouse and part of me wants the dollhouse.

Louisa is falling hard; "Everything we [Adam and Louisa] did together was a delight." I guess he's stopped his anti-voting lectures. By the way, everything was tennis, walks, canoeing, talking. And a kiss. This could easily satisfy those readers wanting a very clean, light romance.

The L word is used, and Adam remains self-important. So get this power move: he calls and tells Katie that it's important and Louisa has to hurry to the phone. So she does. And it's to tell her he loves her! Aw, sweet, right? But she says, dude, I thought something terrible happened! And Adam is such a dick: he's all "why do you have such a gloomy mind." Ugh this is not going to be a happy marriage.

He invites her to dinner with his Dad, and he tells her what to wear. It's a dress she's worn before, described before, is like her favorite.

And Louisa? Is all "damn Emily I know you liked him but I have him now." You know what is weird on a reread? Why Louisa is so hot about what a dead tween thought about her current boyfriend. It's almost gloating. Again, this wasn't a thought in prior readings and I also get that it's being used to direct the reader how to think -- or what to fear.

Also, Emily may have broken a dollhouse doll in anger. I mean Ghost Emily, not Years Ago Emily.

Chapter Eleven

"It was not until I saw the approval in Adam's eyes that I was reassured." Sigh. Oh, Louisa.

And oh dear -- at Adam's house, "they were tended with patient firmness by a tall, erect, soft-spoken Negro woman named Sarah." Yeah, I'm not going to look up acceptable usage in 1912 versus when the book was published but seriously. Also, while I get that Adam's "I don't really know any ladies" line to Louisa was about his not having sisters or a mother, what is Sarah? Chopped liver?

And of course dinner with Dad, after Dad saying "don't let her go" based solely on her clothes and looks, ends up being . . . all about Emily.

I mean, I get Emily is bratty meets evil. But they way they sometimes talk about this poor, dead, child. At the time, it didn't bother me. Probably because as a kid? I knew fully well kids are bratty. And evil. And I didn't need evidence to convince me, beyond what was in the text. And because kids can be self-centered, it would make sense that a kid would be the topic of every conversation adults have.

Oh, and we get more on the theme of "if only her parents had been stricter," with Dad -- who is also a doctor -- basically saying it's all because Emily was spanked. No, really. "If he'd taken the flat of his hand to her once or twice" and "if that child had been raised properly, she'd be alive today."

But don't worry, Old Doctor isn't blaming dear Mrs. Canfield. Just her husband. It's not her fault that she was so "passionately in love with her husband" that she wasn't going to "anger him." (Um, isn't that fear of husband? Whatevs. Though I guess this may be why Doctor Pipe thinks women shouldn't vote, because Mrs. Canfield was too in love with Dead Husband to act rationally about Emily? But then isn't that a reason for no one to vote because Mr. Canfield was far from rationale."

Ok, and this gets weirder. "[Emily] belonged to her father." "Emily was a sultry person." "The real tragedy was Lydia. A woman who loved her husband more than life itself, and a man -- and a man who came to love his child more than his wife." OK, remove my modern view of whether this was incest or incest-like. Instead, it's about parents who put their child before themselves, so instead of being a real parent, and parenting, they let their kids get away with murder.

Can you imagine what these folks would think of modern parenting?

And more, by the way --  "But it was Emily he created. . . . A daughter like that is a formidable rival for any woman."

And after Emily's death, Dead Husband punished his wife for Emily's death. And she seemed to agree. (I wonder what Jack thought, since apparently not long after Emily's death he married Charlotte? And was a better parent to Jane?)

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18. Jane-Emily, Chapters One to Six

The first time I read Jane-Emily I was a child; what I remember is how creepy it was, the girl haunted by the ghost of a dead child and a creepy garden globe.

The second time I read Jane-Emily was about fifteen years ago, as an adult, and what struck me then was, yes, ghost story still creepy, but that the person telling the story was not the girl being haunted (or for that matter the dead child) but, rather, an eighteen year old cousin.

The classic ghost story was framed as a story by a teenage girl.

This time, I read it taking notes chapter by chapter, looking to see how it was put together; why was it so scary; and why was it put together the way it was.

So my first few posts are those scattered thoughts, meant to be read by someone who has already read the book. They are written by someone who half-remembers what happens in the book. And they are written in-time, without much reflection. That reflection will come later, when I sit back and sift and put it together.

So, let's begin, shall we?

Chapter One

"There are times when the midsummer sun strikes cold, and when the leaping flames of a hearthfire give no heat. Times when the chill within us comes not from fears we know, but from fears unknown -- and forever unknowable."

And that's how it begins: not with ghosts and scares, but with thoughts and memory. A spooky atmosphere is being created, and letting us know we are about to talk about fear. Known and unknown fear.

This is all "I," "I," "I." She's 18, she is upset to be leaving Martin Driscoll behind in the summer before he leaves for college, and it's June 1912. (Here's a fun game I play with books set in this time period, it's called "who dies when?" So I'm all "oh, so who goes to World War I in a few years?" I shouldn't be so snarky about Martin, all things considered.) (Jane-Emily never mentions the war, that's just a quirk I have in reading.)

Louisa is traveling with her nine year old niece, Jane, to visit the "elderly" Mrs. Canfield, her niece's grandmother. Jane's parents died the year before in a horse and buggy accident that sounds quite gory, but is described so sparely, that it's almost not noticed. Her mother was thrown against a tree; her father dragged; and with those few sentences, Jane is an orphan. She is also "unnaturally withdrawn," something that will come up again and again, but heck, she's an young child who lost both her parents.

(Note, while Jane's mother is the narrator's sister, so obviously older, as was her husband, no exact ages are given. Yes, I draw family trees as I go along, so this matters. Neither are ages for the narrator's own parents (Charles and Martha Amory) given, but since the paternal grandmother is "elderly" I assume she is older than the narrator's own parents.

And Louisa (that's her name) is such a teen girl! She's complaining about leaving Martin behind: "But Mother! Martin and I have a million plans for this summer." But this story is being told AFTER whatever happens ("that last rainy night") so is she playing up her own youth, before the summer? Poor Martin: He has "beautiful, deep thoughts."

OK, so now they are at the grandmother's house, which is big but a bit shut in and gloomy, but Mrs. Canfield and her servant (housekeeper/cook/maid all in one), Katie, are nice. Jane is staying in Emily's room...

Wait, who?

Emily. Who died at 12, and Louisa is all "oh, yeah, I think I heard about her, but I forgot." And then Louisa says, about Jane, "that cool impersonality that children have for people they never knew." And here is what is brilliant: Louisa is as much describing herself as Jane; and also appears to be describing the reader, also. The reader who will see Jane-Emily as a story about a dead girl's ghost, rather than about a dead girl.

Oh and FINALLY a look in the back garden and the "large bright reflecting ball!"

Oh and Louisa looks into the mirror so we know what she looks like. Blonde curly hair. Blue eyes.

Now we meet Katie who has an "ample body". Oh! Katie started working for Mrs. Canfield since she was 16, and since Mrs. Canfield married, so "almost 40" years. I like figuring out timelines, so this means Katie is about 55; and assuming Mrs. Canfield was at least 20 when she married, she's now at least 60.

And Mrs. Canfield talks, well, it's just weird how she talks about dead Emily. Emily was "rather different" and "not particularly considerate of other people." This starts a pattern: considering Emily died at twelve, considering it's Mrs. Canfield's only daughter, considering both her children are now dead, Mrs. Canfield is almost cold and distanced in how she talks about Emily. Is this a way of processing grief? Maybe, but as a child reader it just meant that from the start, I was on guard against Emily, suspicious of her, because what type of mother talks about her child this way? None, unless it was true. Unless we should be wary of Emily.

And more of Martin and his poetry.

Chapter Two

A letter from Martin! It seems like a long letter but it's really "a few lines scattered over several pages." BURN. Martin isn't what he tries to seem, is he?

And apparently there is a reference to her "rose-tipped hands" and all I can wonder is did she have sunburn when Martin wrote this?

The summer goes by, Jane is getting better, Martin is writing, and a bit of foreshadowing and impending doom ("how could I know there could be anything in that quiet Lynn household to hurt or frighten her?")

And there's a visit from Jacob, the weekly gardener. Now, as a kid, I was all "servants! wow, rich." But now, having been spoiled by Downton Abbey, I'm thinking "only one full time servant? And part time gardener? Mrs. Canfield isn't that well off after all, is she? Also does Katie ever get time off? I don't think so.

Oh, and the weird references from Jane begins, with Jane saying she looks like Emily even though she has apparently never seen a picture of Emily.

And we learn Adam Frost is back in town, the nice young doctor. HMMMMM. Oh, and Emily's playmate.

Excellent, I have more ages to work with to figure out a timeline. Adam is 24, which is how old Emily would have been; Emily died 12 years before, at age 12. Both Emily and her father died before John (Mrs. Canfield's son) and Charlotte (Louisa's sister) married. With Jane being 9, that means they married only ten or eleven years ago, so fairly soon after the deaths of John's sister and father.

This makes me wonder at John's age. The youngest he could have been -- if he married when 21 -- was 31, or seven years older than Emily. Also, given the length of time of his parent's marriage (almost 40 years ago), that would make his parents married nine years before their first child was born. Or, John could be as old as 39 (born right after his parents' marriage), marrying at 29. But this would have made him 15 years older than Emily, and there's a later reference that makes me think this is too old. Also, either way, if Emily would have been 24, her parent's had been married 16 years when their second child was born. That would have put Mrs. Canfield in her late 30s, if not older.

Wait, I'm the only one who figures this stuff out?

What's more important is that young Emily had a serious crush on Adam, and they were friends.

Also if Adam is 24, let's figure out if Louisa is too young for him. 24 divided by 2 is 12, add 7 -- 19. Louisa is 18, so that's close enough. Also as I'm thinking about it, Louisa is old enough to be out of school but school is never mentioned. Yes, Martin is going to college, but Louisa doesn't mention her school, any plans (it is 1912, I guess), and now that I'm writing this, I don't think Louisa even mentioned any teachers or friends.

Actually it's kind of interesting, what a blank slate Louisa is. It makes her the perfect narrator, and the lack of information about her, her interests, her ambitions, is why this isn't a story about an 18 year old and the ghost of a dead girl. She's just telling the story. But she's not that much a part of the story, more the person to tell the story and perhaps (as we'll see) shape the story so that the reader is scared when she is, worried when she is, angry when she is, bewildered when she is.

Louisa is a bit intimidated by Adam, he being a doctor. And she being someone who hangs out with a nine year old, doing needlework, writing letters.

Oh more creepiness! To Jane: "You think a lot about Emily, don't you?" Jane replies, "Emily thinks a lot about me."

And some fashion details, sashes and bows and such.

And he's holding a pipe. ADAM HAS A PIPE. Oh dear. Poetry Boy versus Doctor Pipe.

Chapter Three

And Louisa is a bit intimidated because Doctor Pipe has traveled abroad, and knows so much, and she doesn't understand half of what Doctor Pipe and Mrs. Canfield are talking about. But hey, she's young and pretty and has great clothes so that all works in her favor. But then "boredom crept over me" and I giggle.

ARGH Doctor Pipe is talking about women's rights and the votes and just NO NO NO maybe I should call him Doctor Asshole. Because he's all women are too emotional to vote. And Louisa doesn't help at all by saying how "I wouldn't know much about voting, but some women are quite intelligent."

Not you, Louisa. Not you.

OK. Here's the thing. Doctor Pipe is the romantic lead for our Louisa, if you haven't figure that out yet. He's older, he's handsome, he's a doctor, he's all the things that someone can "look up" to. But seriously, who goes to dinner with three women (Mrs. Canfield, Louisa, Jane) and spouts off about how they shouldn't vote? And spoiler, he never takes this back or explains it. And further spoiler, since he let Emily boss him around all the time, he's known some strong women, so maybe this is a reaction to that? I don't know. I also wonder what this passage was doing, why it was here, in a book published in 1969, has this mini rant about the vote? And having something so negative coming out of the mouth of the hero?

Honestly it's the worst. He's the worst. He's patronizing and says worse things and it's set up as a sort of rom-com bit, with him saying "women would just vote emotionally" and they are so "unpredictable" but then being all "but I don't really know any women so maybe we can spend time together..." And so yes he's that guy. (His mom is dead, Emily is dead, and I guess he's been at same sex schools his whole life but ARGH. Seriously, would you want this guy as your doctor?)

And more on Emily. She was a "hellion."

And talk of moonlight BUT THERE IS NO MOON.

Chapter Four

And the next day, breakfast, Mrs. Canfield rings a bell to summon Katie. I hope they pay her well.

Ha ha ha who am I kidding? I'm sure they pay her crap.

Also there is a lot of food: cinnamon buns! Melon on chilled plates! Eggs!

Jane is wondering if she is pretty and is told "when the time comes that prettiness is most important to you, you will have no cause to worry."

More wisdom from Mrs. Canfield; 'The young have no conception of death, yet it has a mysterious appeal for them." I love how she is saying this, and that it's true for Jane, and also Louisa, and I think even Emily, but also the reader who maybe won't realize that they are the ones being talked about.

More bad poetry from poor Martin. Thank goodness we don't have to read it.


And then Jane writes a poem about pansies that is a thousand times better than Martin's.



Chapter Five

Louisa is getting a bit suspicious of Jane's talking about Emily and the poem and stuff, but she rationalizes it all away.

Louisa clearly likes Doctor Pipe, though she pretends she doesn't.

Jane seems obsessed with Emily but insists she doesn't want to be.

More clothes.

Oh and a CAR. And Doctor Pipe and his pipe and oh, the days when smoking was so casual and OK and he never even asks about it as he puffs away. Anyway, he treats the ladies to a night of band music and fireworks and no lectures on their inferiority to women. He asks Louisa to dinner and he's pretty pushy about it, not taking no for an answer, but then Louisa is pretty wimpy and doesn't say no outright. He's all "do you like lobster" and she's all "yes" and he's all "it's a date." And Louisa is all "his confidence irked me" and I'm all "it's not confidence."

Chapter Six

Do you know what's a great thing to do, on a hot summer day? Explore the attic! But it's more like a spare room on the top floor of the house? By Katie's room, of course. And another small bedroom.

And it's the perfect attic. It's full of toys and old clothes and books and all sorts of things to explore and discover. Trunks! Parasols! Dollhouses! Even a couple of ... ancient rifles?

Oh, more time -- apparently Mr. and Mrs. Canfield took a trip to New York twenty years ago (so Emily would have been 4), basically ending when Emily being so upset, tantrums, etc., about her parents being away that they had to return early. So part of me thinks, in 1892, they could find out about it so quickly to return home half-way? Also they left John and Emily with Katie and a nursemaid. OK, so I doubt John would be 39 now as that means he was 19 at that time, and Mrs. Canfield wouldn't be talking about leaving a 19 year old with a nursemaid.

This trip matters because it's to establish Emily being a brat, and her parents playing into it, but I'll be honest, part of me is thinking -- this kid is four. FOUR. She's been left with servants and a brother and I can get why she'd be upset about that. What does a young kid know about "oh, it's fine, I'll be well cared for by the staff while they're gone?"

And wow -- a casual mention that the problem was Emily never got a "firm hand in punishment." More on this later.

Oh, they got a telegram. That was pretty scary, I guess. So they went home. You know, it's OK for parents to go on a vacation, just them. And yes, Emily was a brat for making them come home. But... I think a four year old could be given a twinge more sympathy. More on this later, but Emily is given so little sympathy.

Also interesting set up: it's the indulgent dad versus the mom who wanted to discipline.

Oh! "Such indulgence [of Emily] was harmful." More on this later, but I kind of like how the child-reader is basically being told "your parents punish you so you don't become like Emily, someone who dies and haunts the living."

Also, all this talk of being more firm is, right now, coming in part from Louisa who is 18. And whose only experience with kids is young Jane. Hardly an expert.

More on Mrs. Canfield not daring to discipline Emily because it would have angered her husband. And I get that Emily is a brat but there is also a part of me feeling sorry for this kid, caught between this weird dynamic.

Also interesting to remember this sermon against permissive parenting is from 1969. And that all of Emily's problems are from being a spoiled Daddy's girl. But was she just spoiled? Or something more?

Let's see, Emily got pissed at a doll and melted its face. And I remember this being "ugh, Emily" but now I'm all, "oh, who among us hasn't messed up a doll?"

More stuff about the reflecting ball, and how it's linked to Emily, and how the distorted faces -- are they distorted faces? Or is it Emily's face? Is Emily's face living in the ball?

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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19. Review: Daughters Unto Devils

Daughters unto Devilsby Amy Lukavics. Harlequin Teen. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

Daughters unto DevilsThe Plot: Amanda, sixteen, and her family live in an isolated mountain cabin. The previous winter had been very bad: they were snowed in, her mother got sick, there were complications when her youngest sister was born, and Amanda herself.... well. They don't talk about that.

Amanda's father thinks life will be better on the prairie, so he packs them all up in the wagon and moves them out, where they find an abandoned cabin.

Life isn't better. The horror is just beginning.

The Good: One of the scariest books I've read in the last ten years; made scarier by how short this book.

Amanda is sixteen; the family lives in a cramped one room cabin, a cabin "built for three" but now housing Amanda, her parents, and her four younger siblings. Emma, her younger sister and best friend; the children, Joanna and Charles; and baby Hannah, born deaf and blind.

Amanda is full of guilt: guilt over wishing her baby sister dead instead of a burden, draining the life out of her mother; guilt over the child she carries, the result of sweet words and warm embraces with the boy who brings the post to the village at the foot of the mountain; guilt over how she went crazy last winter, convinced she saw the devil in the woods and that he was coming for her.

While there are references to a bigger world - the village where Pa goes for supplies and where Amanda sees Henry for the first time, Aunt Charlotte and her children - the world of Daughters Unto Devils is small, as small as Amanda's family and the one room cabins they live in. This is a family isolated; a family that seems close but sharing beds does not mean sharing secrets.

Early on, Amanda is told a ghost story and delights in the thrill it gives her. The story is explained as being about "the land itself. It had been soured by an infection of constant panic, hate, and fear. The man [telling this story] said that in some places, the land can come out to play through the living. It can even make folks go mad."

A land infected that in turns infects others. Panic and hate and fear -- and yes, guilt -- making one susceptible to such infection and evil.

What happens to the people in such a land?

I don't want to say much more. Just where can one hide from devils and demons and the land itself?

And remember how the scariest part of Twilight Zone episodes was that terrible things could happen to anyone? That it wasn't about who deserved it; it one could only live through it and not escape. Bad things happen to people.

In Daughters Unto Devils, very bad things happen.

And for days after, I was half-afraid to look out the windows or into mirrors, afraid of what may be lurking in corners, just out of sight.

Heck yeah, a book this scary is one of my favorite books of 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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20. Review: A Curious Tale of the In-Between

A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano. Bloomsbury USA Children's Publishing. 2015. Review copy from publisher.

Media of A Curious Tale of the In-BetweenThe Plot: Pram Bellamy has been raised by her two aunts, Aunt Nan and Aunt Dee, in the Halfway to Heaven Home for the Aging. Pram has been homeschooled, which means she has been able to keep her secret -- she talks to ghosts. Oh, it's not scary or creepy; her best friend, Felix, is a ghost. But it is something she knows she has to keep secret.

But a person cannot hide forever: and when Pram is sent to school, she meets Clarence. Like Pram, Clarence's mother is dead. As Clarence and Pram's friendship grows, he shares with her his own secret: his desperate need to find his mother -- his mother's ghost. Clarence is unaware of Pram's secret, but she couldn't help him anyway. Sometimes ghosts come to her, sometimes they don't. She doesn't see Clarence's mother; she's never seen her own mother.

Lady Savant is one of the spiritualists a searching Clarence goes to. She doesn't give Clarence any answers, but she does recognize Pram's power. And she wants it for her own.

The Good: A wonderfully creepy book -- not creepy because ghosts. To Pram, ghosts are not much different from humans. Felix is her best friend, even if she's the only one who can see him.

A Curious Tale of the In-Between starts as an exploration of Pram: telling us a bit about her distraught mother, who took her own life while pregnant with Pram. Telling us a bit about the strange home Pram has been raised in.

And then it turns to creepy and to terror, not because of ghosts or the supernatural, but because of one person who craves the power Pram has. Lady Savant, who is willing to say anything and do anything. People, not what lurks between life and death, or what happens after life, are the threat. But people are also what can save us.

This is a great middle grade book: it's about Pram learning more about herself and her world while making closer connections with friends and family, living and dead. It's also got a sense of place I found delightful even while being scared. Pram's aunts and the home they run are almost like something out of Dickens; the mystery of Pram's parents, even the names used (Pram, Clarence, Felix) make this reminiscent of older stories. Yet it's more that it's a timeless story, not a historical story. And the horror is just enough -- just enough to scare the reader, to make one turn the pages even faster, even, perhaps, to make one skip to the last page just to make sure it ends well.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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21. Review: Walk on Earth a Stranger

Walk on Earth a Stranger (Gold Seer Trilogy) by Rae Carson. Greenwillow Books. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: 1849 Georgia. Leah Westfall lives with her parents, and together they hide her secret: she can find gold. It calls to her. To the rest of the world, her father is lucky; a luckiness that the family has to hide.

Her world comes crashing down when her parents are murdered and Leah finds herself running for her life. But where to go, what to do?

She can find gold. So she decides to go where everyone who has gold fever is going in 1849: California.

The Good: Oh, so much to like about Walk on Earth a Stranger!

First is, girls getting stuff done. At the start of the book, Leah is 15. She is devastated by the murders of her beloved parents, especially when she realizes who is behind it and that she is not safe. As a minor, and a woman, she has few options so she runs away. Dressed as a boy, and calling herself Lee.

So yes, this becomes a girl dressed like a boy story! Love. Leah binds her breasts and pleads modesty to explain her needs for privacy. And yes, Walk on Earth a Stranger is the type of book that doesn't shy away from things like Lee having to figure out what to do when she gets her period.

Lee's journey across the country is quite the adventure, by horse, by boat, by wagon. Pretending to be a boy gives her a level of safety and independence in her travels, but it doesn't totally protect her. It's still, at times, a struggle, and there are things -- there are people -- to fear.

Lee meets a wide assortment of people during her travels. One friend from the start is a neighbor and quasi-romantic interest, Jefferson. What I like about Jefferson is that he doesn't save her, and Lee doesn't need saving; they are friends, who may become something more, but they are equals. At times there are secrets and misunderstandings between the two, but the friendship is constant.

At least half of the book is the journey to California. It's not easy; there are difficulties, based on the method of travel, the ignorance and naivety of some of the travelers, and problems with some of those they are traveling with. Lee sees firsthand the hatred and fear of those in their party towards Indians, ranging from malicious actions to making up stories. She also sees it in how Jefferson (whose mother was Cherokee) is treated and talked about.

The people traveling to California are an odd mixture, bound together mainly by need and timing. It includes families and young men; people hoping to make their fortune finding gold and people hoping to make their fortune off of the gold seekers.

The Joyner family is the one that Lee travels with the longest, and so perhaps that is why the Joyners, and Mrs. Joyner especially, fascinates me. The Joyners are a well off family, bringing their furniture with them, insisting on tablecloths and china at meals. They have prejudices and biases typical of their time. (The interactions, or lack of interactions, between families based on religion and background is another fascinating part of the story.) The trip itself takes the family physically out of their comfort zone, and as the story continues Mrs. Joyner is continuing pushed beyond her comfort zone. Her character trajectory, when she rises to the occasion, when she falls, makes me hope to see more of her in the second book. Once in California, will she fall back to who she was? Or continue to grow and adapt?

Finally, what I like is that Lee's gift is not an easy answer. "Finding gold" sounds wonderful but the reality, not so much. Her parents, for example, knew that they had to be careful about who knew how much they had found; and also to take a care of whose gold is found. I liked the way that Lee used her gift in ways other than prospecting.

Walk on Earth a Stranger ends with Lee in California, and I liked that resolution, that the book was all about Lee's journey and about her gathering around her a small group of people she can trust. I'm looking forward to the next book, not just to find out more about Lee and her friends, but also to see if some of the many questions raised in the first book get answered.

And yes, I adore Rae Carson and her writing, so of course this is a Favorite Book Read in 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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22. Review: Sweet Madness

Sweet Madnessby Trisha Leaver and Lindsay Currie. Merit Press. 2015. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: 1892. Fall River, Massachusetts.

Bridget Sullivan, 17, is the made in the household of the Borden family. Everyone thinks the family is peculiar; but as an Irish immigrant, her options for employment are few and far between.

She tries to do her job, but Bridget can't help but feeling sorry for the Borden's daughter, Lizzie. She sees firsthand the strange goings on in the Borden household. She begins to wonder, about the Bordens, about Lizzie.

Are they just strange? Or is there danger in the house?

The Good: When your name is Elizabeth; when your nickname for that name is Lizzie; when your last name begins with the letter B; you quickly become acquainted with the rhyme, "Lizzie Borden took an axe."

Perhaps that is why I have a life long fascination with true crime stories and murder mysteries.

Sweet Madness is the story of the Borden family in the summer days leading up to the murders of made famous in that children's rhyme. It's nicely researched -- and not just research into the immediate family, but also to their neighbors and extended family, and also a look at the lives of the Irish immigrants of the time.

Sweet Madness is a YA story because Bridget herself is a teen, working hard hours and trying to do right by those she works for, while at the same time, trying to have something to herself that is just hers: friends, a boyfriend, a life outside the Borden household. The real Bridget Sullivan may have been older than this fictitious one, but any questions about age are explained away by Bridget saying she lied about her age to get a job.

Any book about Lizzie Borden and Borden murders must give some hypothesis about the murders, about who did it, and why. I really liked where Leaver and Currie went, and their exploration of what it meant to be a "spinster" in that time and place, and the family dynamics, and possible insight into the characters of Lizzie, her father, and her stepmother. I won't say more than that; you need to read Sweet Madness (or talk with me about the ending in the comments.)

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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23. Jane-Emily Read Along

Are you ready for a Read Along?

jane-emilyKelly, Leila, and I are doing a read-along of one of my favorite books from my childhood: Jane-Emily: And Witches' Children by Patricia Clapp. For the read along, I'm reading the 2007 ebook version from Harper Collins.

Please, join us for the read along! It's an old-school scary book, and I read it as a kid. If you remember a book with a haunted garden globe?Then you also read this book. I reread it about fifteen years ago and I thought it held up then; and I'm looking forward to rereading it again.

It's often called a children's book, but it's one of those books narrated by a teen. From the publisher:

Emily was a selfish, willful, hateful child who died before her thirteenth birthday. But that was a long time ago.

Jane is nine years old and an orphan when she and her young Aunt Louisa come to spend the summer at Jane's grandmother's house, a large, mysterious mansion in Massachusetts. 

Then one day . . . Jane stares into a reflecting ball in the garden—and the face that looks back at her is not her own.

Many years earlier, a child of rage and malevolence lived in this place. And she never left. Now Emily has dark plans for little Jane—a blood-chilling purpose that Louisa, just a girl herself, must battle with all her heart, soul, and spirit . . . or she will lose her innocent, helpless niece forever.

One of the most adored ghost stories of all time is available again after thirty years—to thrill and chill a new generation!

We will all be talking about this the last week of October - please, join us, wherever it is you like to talk about books. Blogs, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram -- it all counts. Talk about it as a new reader, or as someone rereading; talk about how the style of books have changed over the decades and whether (and how) Jane-Emily would be published today; talk about whether there are dated portrayals or if it has held up over the years. Talk about the cover changes. Talk about garden globes. Whatever you want... just join us.

The hashtag we'll be using to find each other over all those platforms is #JaneEmilyRA.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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24. Review: Shadows of Sherwood

Shadows of Sherwood (Robyn Hoodlum)by Kekla Magoon. Bloomsbury USA Children's Books. 2015. Review copy from publisher.

Media of Shadows of Sherwood
The Plot: A Robin Hood retelling, with Robyn Loxley as a twelve year old girl who seeks her imprisoned parents and allies herself with the have-nots of her world.

The Good: I love retellings, I love seeing what is kept, what is changed, how it's updated.

Confession: this is one of those books that while I'd heard a bunch of buzz, I'd avoided most reviews, wanting to read it fresh. The cover told me that the retelling was also updating the setting, putting Robyn in a modern world.

Well, I was wrong. And right. Yes, it's a modern world but it's not our modern world. The technology seems about fifty years in the future; the city is Nott City, and the discussion of the city and its surroundings, while matching the Robin Hood tales, doesn't match our own geography. So it's not just a retelling; it's a fantasy, in that it's not our world. But it's so close to our world, that even non-fantasy readers will enjoy it. And the names of places and people will make those familiar with Robin Hood smile: Loxley Manor, the Castle District, people named Tucker and Scarlet and Merryan.

Robyn is amazing. Awesome. Courageous, stubborn, smart -- and a bit spoiled. She's the child of privilege who likes to sneak out at night. It's the sneaking out that saves her, when her politically involved parents are taken as part of a coup. Suddenly, she's without anything or anyone and is forced beyond the borders of her comfortable life. For example: Robyn isn't even familiar with money or trading, because chips and credit have always covered her needs. But as she meets others -- a young girl living on her own, a boy who is hiding something -- she adjusts. Forced to be an enemy of those in charge, she quickly sides with the others who are enemies of those in power: the poor, those without connections, those living hand to mouth.

Robyn is biracial; her parents, and their backgrounds, are part of the story and even mystery Robyn is trying to uncover. Mystery may be the wrong word; but while her parents now have powerful connections and jobs, allowing for Robyn's very upper class upbringing, Shadows of Sherwood quickly sketches in the background of their lives and world. And their background is what targeted them during the current coup, and their lives before Robyn's birth is part of what she needs to learn more about to figure out her own present and future. Robyn's hair is braided, and it turns out it's a distinctive style taught to her by her father. It's unique; and when she is alone, seeing another with the same style of braid is one of those clues. While this is not our world, it's a world where skin color and money matter, just in different ways. So while there is the adventure of survival, and helping others, there is also the mystery of the past and the future and finding her parents.

This is the start of a series, and so it's Robyn's origin story. Who she was. How she becomes Robyn Hoodlum, robbing from the rich to give to the poor. With that told; and with the start of her "merry band" coming together, I look forward to what Robyn and her crew will do next.

Because Robyn is terrific. Because the world building is so full. Because it's an inventive retelling that is also true to the source. Because I want more. Shadows of Sherwood is a Favorite Book of 2015.

Meanwhile, while waiting for more Robyn, over at Nerdy Book Club the author, Kekla Magoon, shares a bit about writing this book.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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25. Review: These Shallow Graves

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. Delacorte Press. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

These Shallow Graves by The Plot: New York City, 1890. Josephine Montfort has the type of life that others dream about: her family is old and respected, their money is old and respected, and she has a life of privilege and ease, of being waited on, of going to balls and parties.

Jo has friends and family and her own dreams: a dream of being a writer, of being a reporter, like Nelly Bly. It's not something a proper young lady does, however.

And then her father dies. The official report is he accidently shot himself while cleaning his gun ... but Jo has her doubts.

Those doubts, and Jo's own desire for the truth, will lead her away from the proper homes of rich New York, to places dark and dangerous.

The Good: Jo is a great heroine: while These Shallow Graves begins with Jo working on a school paper, hoping for better stories than the proper way to brew tea, Jo is very much a product of her world, her class, her time. She is limited in ways she doesn't know; and one wonders how Jo's future would have gone, had her father not died.

But her father does die, and Jo grieves but she also has questions and the instincts of a reporter, and those two things drive Jo outside the safety of her home and those she knows. Questions get answers and more questions, and there are more bodies; as well as a mysterious past and tragedies.

ARGH. You can tell that because this is, at it's heart, a mystery, I don't want to get too into the details of the mystery itself. What I can say is that I appreciate the contradictions within Jo: she is smart and clever, yes, but she has been protected by her wealth and her privilege. For example, most readers will pick up earlier than Jo does when characters are talking about brothels and prostitutes. But that is purposeful, to illustrate that Jo's being "protected" work against her by creating a level of ignorance that puts her into danger. If the reader is sometimes a step or two ahead of Jo, it's because they haven't been kept isolated behind walls of wealth and sexism.

These Shallow Graves is also very much a feminist book, looking at the options, and lack of options, of women in the late nineteenth century. There are mothers who seem to be coldly calculating as they arrange and plot suitable marriages, until one steps back and sees what happens to those women who aren't protected by money and family connections. Or, rather, what these women fear will happen to their daughters. It becomes clear early on just how narrow Jo's world is, and how that narrowness comes from fear and how that is it's own "grave", burying her dreams and hopes and desires deep.

That women do have choices, even if those choices are tough ones, is shown: yes, there are pickpockets and prostitutes and homeless women; there are people whose poverty destroy them. But there's also a mention of Edith Wharton and a young woman going to medical school. Yet it's clear that freedom, for women, is not easy or simple.

There is a bit of a love triangle, between the suitable young man that everyone, including Jo, thinks of as her future husband because, well, everyone assumes it. Such a good match, such good families, and they are friends so why not? And then there is the driven reporter, who latches onto the story of Jo's father as his ticket to a better job. Can he be trusted? And can Jo trust her feelings about him? Yes, a triangle.... but the two young men also represent the two choices Jo has: do what is safe, or do what she wants. What will make her family happy, or what will make her happy.

One last bit: without getting spoilery, I liked that many people rose to the occasion when the situation warranted. While there are some expected and unexpected betrayals, there are also people who prove themselves worthy of Jo's trust and friendship. People aren't black and white, for or against Jo. They are not shallow; they have as much depth as Jo -- it's just they are sometimes in a world that doesn't allow that depth.

These Shallow Graves are the secrets of the past; the places bodies have been buried; and also the world of Jo and her friends and families, limited by society, sexism, and prejudice.

A Favorite Book of 2015, because of the complexity of Jo. And I both want a sequel -- this could easily be the start of historical mystery series -- and a companion book, because Fay, well. Fay. Once you've read this, I think you'll agree: FAY.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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