Creepy Books Perfect for October (Middle Grade Edition)

It’s October!

The month when night comes early, sweaters replace T shirts and Halloween is just around the corner.  It’s the perfect time to snuggle up and indulge in a spooky book or two.  While the horror genre is not my cup of tea, I love a darkly atmospheric story that is creepy without being too graphic. I also enjoy a dash of weirdness and some psychological tension.  A compelling plot, interesting characters and strong writing are all that’s required to complete my idea of the perfect spine-tingling book .

Am I asking too much?   I think not.

The middle grade books in the list below hit that sweet spot of well-written, strong storylines coupled with atmospheric creepiness.  They are also compelling enough to satisfy readers of all ages who want some spookiness in their lives but don’t want to be scared witless by a story.

 

 

Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  First, let me say that Neil is my go-to author for creepiness.  He does it so well!  With Coraline, he takes the experiences of moving to a new home and benign parental neglect and turns them into something very sinister.  While investigating her new flat (located in an old home divided into several apartments), Coraline discovers a portal to another flat just like the one in which she currently lives.  At first, everything in this other flat seems better than her ordinary life, including the parents that reside there.  But something is strange about these parents and they want her to stay with them and be their little girl forever.  It doesn’t take long for things to go south for Coraline.  This book is perfectly creepy and the best way to experience it is by audiobook, which is narrated by Neil Gaimen himself.

 

 

Dorp Dead by Julia Cunningham and illustrated by James Spanfeller.  Several decades ago Mr. Hoin, my fifth grade teacher, read Dorp Dead to my class after lunch each day; I still remember the feelings of dread I experienced as I listened to him.  Dorp Dead is an odd story that falls squarely on the psychologically dark and dreadful side of creepy.  It’s about a grieving ten year old boy who is  placed in an orphanage after his grandmother dies.  He protects himself by hiding his intelligence and withdrawing from the world around him.  His behaviors are misunderstood so he is sent to live with a wealthy ladder maker whose obsessive-compulsive behavior hints at something truly dangerous.  I can’t say anything more without ruining the story but I recommend this book for readers who enjoy heavy foreboding and psychological tension.  It’s a quick read, too, and the illustrations enhance the creepiness.

 

 

The Seer of Shadows by Avi.  Do not be fooled by the middle grade label of this book.  Avi is a masterful storyteller who takes his readers on one hair-raising ride with this tale. It’s an intense and chilling story about a ghost bent on revenge.  Early photography plays an important role in the plot and the author enhances the story with rich historical detail.  The Seer of Shadows is perfect for anyone who loves a good ghost story or an atmospheric Gothic tale.  My kids and I listened to this as a book on tape (that’s how long ago we read it) and I loved it as much as they did.

 

 

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier.  Take two abandoned siblings and send them to work for an eccentric family living in a crumbling manor house in the middle of a dark forest.  Add a witch, a big spooky tree, a strange nighttime visitor, a mystery and a curse.  Glue it all together with fantastic writing and main characters a person can really get behind and the result is the Night Gardener.  Part fairy tale, part mystery, part spooky story – this book has it all.   It is my  personal favorite on the list and I highly recommend it.

 

 

Small Spaces by Catherine Arden.  Small Spaces is the story of Ollie, a girl who has recently lost her mother.  She has also recently found a book that tells of a “smiling man” who can grant your dearest wish, for a price (of course).  On a field trip to a nearby farm, Ollie and her classmates have a frightening encounter which prompts her and two friends to run into the woods near the cornfield where the bus is parked.  When they emerge, they are in an alternate world.  A world that contains “the smiling man”.  As you can guess, bad things happen.  With pumpkins, scarecrows and cornfields sprinkled throughout, the setting of this book is the most Halloweenish of the bunch.  It is also suitably dark and nightmarish for the season.  For those who are in the mood for listening rather than reading, the audiobook, narrated by Renee Dorian, is very well done.

Bonus Recommendation:

 

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.  At the risk of stating the obvious, October is the perfect month to indulge in some Harry Potter. Dip a toe into a single book or go all out and read the series.  The plot, the world building, the characters – everything, actually – perfectly fit my idea of a creepy, atmospheric and imaginative story.  The scare factor is real and sometimes intense but it’s balanced by believable human drama, meaningful relationships and humor.  If you’ve never read Harry Potter, now is the perfect time to give him a try.  Or, consider revisiting his wizarding world if it’s been awhile since you hung out with The Chosen One.  You won’t be disappointed.

Happy spooky reading!  If you have any suggestions to add to the list, please share in the comments.

Small Pleasures: Summer 2019

Summer is mellowing out and winding down.  Before I give the season a final farewell wave, I want to reflect on some of the small pleasures I’ve enjoyed over the last few months.  Routinely acknowledging the good things in my life exercises my gratitude muscle and helps me mentally end the summer on a happy note.

Small Pleasures: Summer 2019

  • Sitting on the front porch.   My front porch is the perfect place for reading a book or hanging out with my husband.  It’s comfortable and secluded and I whiled away many, many hours there this summer.
  • Orange Creamsicle smoothies.  My extended family enjoyed our biennial trip to the Outer Banks in July.  There is a smoothie shop in Corolla called Island Smoothie that makes the most delicious and refreshing Orange Creamsicle smoothies I have ever tasted.  I stopped by almost every day of our vacation for a hit of brain-freezing goodness.
  • Toy Story 4.  I was surprised by how much I loved this movie.  It is the perfect ending to a beloved Disney/Pixar franchise.
  • The Try Channel.  I am addicted to this YouTube channel highlighting Irish people trying different foods and drinks and providing commentary on their experiences.   Posts are uploaded every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I haven’t missed one all summer.  the combination of fun personalities and hilarious interactions and reactions keeps me (and Jay) coming back.  The Krispy Kreme clip hooked me and I haven’t looked back.  (Fair warning – salty language runs amok in these videos). 
  • Star Trek (the original series). Late last year, Jay and I decided to work our way through all three seasons of Star Trek (79 hour long episodes) on Netflix.  We finished the last show, Turnabout Intruder, this summer.  Bad acting and cheap sets aside, we both gained a real appreciation for the ways this short lived series attempted to addresses issues of the time (the late 1960s) and we developed a better understanding of the impact the show has had on American pop culture.  More importantly, though, spending time with Captain Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Starship Enterprise was a nostalgic stress reliever for me – something I desperately needed this summer.   
  • Audiobooks.  Over the summer semester, I drove an inordinate amount of miles to observe my clinical students.  One of the benefits of all that travel was the opportunity to listen to some excellent audiobooks.  These books turned what could have felt like a boring waste of time into an adventure I looked forward to. My favorite audiobooks from the summer are:
    • Recursion by Blake Crouch (5 stars)
    • Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Dalton-Brooks (4.25 stars)
    • Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (4.5 stars)
    • The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (4 stars)
    • Atomic Habits by James Clear (5 stars)
    • Nine Horses Waiting by Mary Stewart (4 stars)
  • Butterflies, moths and bumble bees.  This summer seemed to be a bumper season for pretty bugs.  I love watching the bumble bees gather pollen and the butterflies fluttering from flower to flower.  It made my heart happy.
  • Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (available on Amazon). Somehow I missed this historical drama based on the book by Anthony Trollope when it came out in 2016.  The mini-series is very high quality and an absolute joy to watch, especially because I was unfamiliar with the storyline.  I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys movies/mini-series like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Gaskill’s North and South.
  • The Currently Reading podcast. Besides audiobooks, I enjoy listening to a good podcast when I’m driving.  In August, I stumbled across the Currently Reading podcast hosted by Meredith Monday Schwartz and Kaytee Cobb.  The podcast is fairly new (just over a year) and after taking my time over the last several weeks working through their back catalog, I’m almost caught up.  In each episode, these ladies casually talk about the books they’ve read recently (good and bad), they do a deep dive into a bookish topic, and then press favorite books into their listeners hands.  I especially like that they cover many backlist titles and that they have no problem discussing books they didn’t like and why.  Listening to this podcast keeps me excited about reading (not that I need the encouragement) and adds to my TBR (to-be-read) pile with each episode.
  • Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo show.  A very weird, very magical experience. I enjoyed every minute of it and am thankful I had the chance to see it.

To be completely honest, when I first started this list, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come up with enough items to make the post worthwhile reading.  I’ve been so weighed down with the burdens of work, I failed to see all the good things I enjoyed this summer.  Now I can let the summer go with a happy heart and welcome the fall with open arms.  My lovely daughter is getting married in a few weeks so this autumn is starting out with one gigantic celebratory bang.  Bring on the pumpkins, apple cider and fall fairs!

I hope my list inspires you to reminisce on your own summer pleasures.  If you’d like to share some of them in the Comments, I’d love to read about them.

 

My Reading Life: Sleeper Hits of 2018

After reading untold numbers of Best Of and Top 5 (or 10 or 15) Books of 2018 lists in December and January, I feel compelled to add my two cents and compile a unique list of favorites from the past year.  Circe by Madeline Miller, How Then Should We Live by Francis Schaeffer and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman would top my Best of 2018 list if that was how I was gonna roll with this post.  But that’s not the way I’m rolling.  I’m going to go in the Sleeper Hits of 2018 direction, a tradition I started last year that I would like to revisit (even though it’s the middle of February and 2018 is long gone).

What’s a Sleeper Hit?

The term comes from the entertainment industry and describes a movie that becomes a big success despite a small financial investment, little promotion and/or slow opening success.  I’m using the term to describe a book I expect will be good (or even great) but  ends up exceeding all my expectations.  Sleeper hits aren’t always 5 star books.  They usually fall solidly in at least the 4 star category and are always a happy surprise when it comes to my personal enjoyment of them.

Without further delay, I give you my Sleeper Hits of 2018…

Rabbit Cake   Rabbit Cake by Annie Harnett, narrated by Katie Schorr.  There is a special place in my heart for quirky kids trying to figure out the world while navigating difficult circumstances.  Elvis Babbit is on of those kids.  She tells the story of her quirky family’s grieving process after her mother dies in a drowning accident.  This book is funny, sad and pleasantly weird.  The tone reminds me of The Bellweather Rhapsody or the movies Moonrise Kingdom and Little Miss Sunshine.  I listened to this as an audiobook which I’m sure enhanced my enjoyment of it.  Katie Schorr does an excellent job with narration.  You absolutely believe you are listening to a curious and observant twelve year old girl.

Blue Sword  The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.  This YA novel has all the components of a fun fantasy/adventure: interesting characters, a well developed setting, a journey of self discovery and growth through adversity, an epic good versus evil battle, a bit of romance, and, of course, magic.  And, the main character is a heroine.  It’s a quick read and total escapist pleasure.  In the right directorial hands, I think it could be a fantastic movie.

The Sisters Brothers  The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt is a weird and often very funny Western about two hitman brothers, narrated by the contemplative and compassionate brother, Eli Sisters (I loved him!).  There is a dream-like quality to this story that made it feel like an epic but quirky myth or parable.  That alone would be my reading jam but the unusual characters, strong writing and tidy ending (which I really loved here) cinched The Sisters Brothers as a Sleeper Hit.  Plus, that cover art!  One caveat – this is a Western about hitmen.  As you can imagine, there is violence aplenty so consider yourself warned.

When We  When We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen. This book explores grief, faith and relationships in a small town after a fatal car accident involving four cheerleaders.  There are several secrets revolving around the accident that creates a surprisingly compelling storyline.  Although there is tragedy and sadness, the resolutions are uplifting and positive; it’s sappy in the best kind of way.  I also felt that the Christian faith was treated realistically and fairly.  When We Were Worthy won’t win the Pulitzer, but it was a satisfying way to spend my time. 

Norse Mythology  Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman.  Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths are modern, accessible and funny.  I enjoyed them so much!  Allow me a disclaimer here, though.  I had the pleasure of reading Norse Mythology while I was traveling in Iceland last summer which added significantly to my reading pleasure.  There were so many nods to Norse mythology throughout Iceland, i.e., the Bifrost sculpture at Keflavik airport and  Thorsmork (Thor’s Valley).  I don’t know if I would have enjoyed this book half as much if I hadn’t been reading it after long days of adventuring in the land of fire and ice.

Jurassic ParkJurassic Park by Michael Crichton, narrated by Scott Brick. What a great book! I enjoyed it even more than the movie, mostly because I appreciated the more detailed look at chaos theory presented by Ian Malcolm which is only superficially addressed in the movie.  The plot is propulsive; I was compelled to finish as soon as possible to out what happened EVEN THOUGH I ALREADY KNEW THE ENDING from the movie. That is a telling aspect of a great book.  Jurassic Park isn’t high literature but it is a well researched and very enjoyable tale with a just a dash of mind tickling philosophy.

Off the Clock  Off the Clock written and narrated by Laura Vanderkam.  Productivity and time management hold a weird fascination for me, (probably because I’m uber-afflicted with the planning fallacy) so this book caught my eye as soon as it was released.  Instead of being a how-to for managing the minutes of your day, the book focused on making the time you have meaningful.  Laura suggests being off the clock means making worthwhile memories, spending less time doing things that don’t have lasting meaning in our lives, and choosing things that do matter. I especially appreciated the better than nothing (BTN) concept, being a satisfizer rather than a maximizer (hello, perfectionist), and keeping track of how I spend my time to see were I’m wasting it.  I can see myself returning to this book on the regular for a steady reminder to be mindful about the time I have at my disposal.

Lost Book  The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett , narrated by Charles Armstrong.  Take a stuffy English scholar named Arthur Prescott, place him in a medieval town with a famous crumbling cathedral and ancient library and add a delightful supporting cast and a few mysteries related to Arthurian legends.  The result is The Lost Book of the Grail.  While not a page-turning thriller, it is a delightful mystery that focuses on character growth, friendships and Arthurian legends.  It’s also another book with a seriously satisfying ending.  I enjoyed taking my time with it.

Honorable Mentions:

Born Standing Up written and narrated by Steve Martin.  An intimate look at the professional development and personal life of one of America’s favorite comedians.

Blessing Your Grown Children by Debra Evans.  Chock full of wisdom for maintaining strong and supportive relationships with older teen and young adult children that I find myself returning to again and again.

Now I can finally close the book(s) on 2018 with a satisfied conscience.  Happy reading!

Also see Sleeper Hits of 2017

Any Sleeper Hits you’d like to share?  Please do in the comments below.

Book Consumption: The Sleeper Hits of 2017

What’s a sleeper hit?

The term comes from entertainment industry jargon and describes a movie that becomes a big success despite a small financial investment, little promotion and/or slow opening success.  I’m borrowing the term to describe a book I expect will be good (or even great) but ends up being much better than I anticipated.  Sleeper hits aren’t always 5 star books.  However, they all fall solidly in at least the 4 star category and are always a happy surprise when it comes to my personal enjoyment of them.

Of the 64 books I read in 2017, 8 books made it to my Sleeper Hits list.  The books are a diverse group, covering a wide variety of genres, topics and geographical locations.  It’s important to note I experienced about half the books on the following list in audiobook format.  Listening to books read by gifted narrators with accents appropriate to the stories enhanced the reading experience for me and often played a vital role in bumping the books up to Sleeper Hit status.

I loved all these books and am excited to share them today.

Sleeper Hits of 2017

Bellweather

 

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia, narrated by Jessica Almasy (audiobook).  I would describe this book as quirky, complex, and surprising.  I don’t know if this is a YA novel with adult themes or an adult novel with a YA setting and characters.  Either way, it works.  Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You reviewed it on Goodreads and she describes the experience perfectly:  This was one of the most fun books I’ve read in a long time. Sharp, witty, and full of flashbacks to the late 1990s–if, like me, you were an adolescent at that time, you’ll be giggling in delight. But lest you think it’s just fluff, there are weightier issues here as ballast, too: a teen struggling with his sexuality, a woman scarred by an abusive teacher who fears she’s become a monster herself, a father devastated by a long-ago tragedy. Oh, and two murders. It races along at a breakneck pace–I finished it in days–and Racculia pulls it all together in a very satisfying way at the end. If you loved The Westing Game as a kid, you’ll love this.

News

 

News of the World by Paulette Jiles.  After reading several glowing reviews, I expected this book to be fabulous so the fact it landed on my Sleeper Hits list is very telling.  This is one of the best books I read all year.  The story takes place in Texas during the Reconstruction era and follows the journey of an itinerant news reader in Witchita Falls who has agreed to transport a young German girl, who has been a captive of the Kiowa Indians for several years, back to her extended family in San Antonio.  What makes this book unforgettable?  Memorable characters who demonstrate growth, a strong sense of time and place, an interesting storyline with layered and complex themes,  and beautiful writing.  I don’t read westerns, ever, but this book changed that.  I would love to see News of the World developed into a movie.  If done right it would be visually stunning, action-packed, and emotionally satisfying.

Boys

 

The Boys in the Boat by James Daniel Brown.  This is another book I had very high expectations for.  And, boy, did it ever deliver.  The boys in the boat refer to the University of Washington’s 1936 eight oar rowing crew.  The book covers their quest to win the gold medal in Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games.  The content centers around the life of Joe Rantz, one of the rowers, and his personal drama as an abandoned child during the Great Depression and as a member of the crew.  Filled with compelling characters, interesting historic details and thrilling narrative drive, I found this book to be unputdownable. (Is that a word?).  This is a piece of creative non-fiction that reads like the best of kind of novel and is another one of my favorites from 2017.

Brown

 

Brown Girl Dreaming, written and read by Jacqueline Woodson (audiobook).  I would not normally pick up this type of book on my own, mainly because I no longer have middle grade kids.  But, I do listen to the podcast What Should I Read Next on a regular basis and Brown Girl Dreaming was mentioned several times last year so I thought I’d give it a go.  It’s the perfect example of why stepping outside one’s comfort zone is a positive thing.  Jacqueline Woodson’s award-winning (National Book Award and Newberry Honor) autobiography is children’s literature of the highest order.  It’s written in verse, which makes for an interesting reading/listening experience.  The story provides a singular, intimate portrait of a young African American girl’s experience growing up in the South and in New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Woodson narrates the audiobook and it is delightful.  I can’t recommend it enough.

True Grit

 

True Grit by Charles Portis, narrated by Donna Tartt (audiobook).  I stumbled across True Grit as a recommendation to readers who enjoyed News of the World.  The storyline for True Grit follows a young self-sufficient and gutsy teen girl named Maddie Ross who is seeking justice for the murder of her father.  She hires Rooster Cogburn, a US Marshal with “true grit”, to help her track down her father’s murderer in Indian territory.  Shenanigans ensue as you would expect.  The first person narrative lends itself to audiobook format and Donna Tart (yes, that Donna Tartt) does a fabulous job bringing the inimitable Maddie to life.  This is an often laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes violent and ultimately satisfying story.  Jay and I listened to this book during our Cleveland road trip and we both enjoyed it immensely.

Scarlet

 

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, narrated by Bob Neufeld (audiobook).  The only Sherlock Holmes book I’ve read is The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I listened to through loyalbooks.com and which made my Sleeper Hits list for 2016.  A Study in Scarlet is the first book in the Sherlock Holmes catalog and details how Dr. Watson and Holmes began their partnership.  The mystery begins with a murder in an abandoned South London townhome which baffles the London constabulary and intrigues Holmes.  There is a very interesting story about the beginnings of Mormonism within the story of the mystery that I found fascinating.  I  also appreciate the tidy and believable resolution to the mystery.  I like Doyle’s writing – it is very accessible and surprisingly descriptive – and Bob Neufeld’s voice is perfect for an aging Dr. Watson.  I think I need to read more Sherlock Holmes.

Code Name

 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, narrated by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell (audiobook).  This is a gut-wrenching piece World War II spy fiction which revolves around the friendship of two young English women.  The first half of the book is told by Queenie (code name Verity) through a confession she is writing for her Gestapo captors.  The second half of the book is told through the writings of her friend Maddie, an  Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who crashed with her in France.  The compilation of both accounts provides insight into the girls’ close friendship, highlights some of the roles women played and the sacrifices ordinary citizens made during WWII, and fleshes out the ugliness of war and its impact on the individuals involved.  This is an unforgettable story and I find myself returning to it again and again.  Be forewarned, though.  This isn’t an easy read (or listen).  It’s about war, after all, so expect some very difficult passages.

Himself

 

Himself by Jess Kidd, narrated by Aiden Kelly.  Himself wasn’t even on my radar when my mom suggested I give it a try at the beach last summer.  I suppose this would be labeled a murder mystery but that feels like such a restrictive descriptor.  The main character, Mahony, is an orphan who grows up in Dublin to be a charming car thief.  He is also gifted with the ability to see ghosts.  When he receives an anonymous note suggesting his mother may have been murdered, he decides to go to his birthplace,  Mulderrig, to snoop around.  There he meets a very eccentric cast of characters, living and dead, who either help or hinder his search for the answer to his mother’s disappearance.  Why did this book make my Sleeper Hits list? I loved the lush, lyrical writing – it felt very Irish to me.  The characters were unique, likable (for the most part) and often very funny.  And the plot was unexpected and absorbing.  I enjoy ghost stories and magical realism and I don’t mind a little darkness mixed in with beauty.  This book really worked for me.

As you can see, I may be slacking in the blogging arena but my reading life is on fire.  I’m looking forward to discovering new Sleeper Hits in 2018.

How about you?  Do you have any Sleeper Hits you’d like to share?

You might also like:

Book Consumption: Sleeper Hits or 2016 

 

 

 

 

Small Pleasures: June Edition

I love recognizing and indulging in small pleasures on a regular basis.  They add a sense of happiness and contentment to my life.  Summertime offers an inordinate amount of these delights (ice cream cones from Pine View Dairy, lightning bugs, eating al fresco at every opportunity, etc.) and I’ve been enjoying as many of them as I can.

My favorites of the summer so far:

  1. Strawberry spinach salad.  June is strawberry season around here and I am all about those strawberries.  My favorite way to eat them this year is in this beautiful spinach salad.  I just can’t get enough of the sweet and tangy deliciousness.
  2. Baseball season.  Youth baseball, that is.  This is the last year my youngest son, Aaron, will play in the local youth league so I am trying to soak up as much of the experience as I can.  The weather has been especially accommodating for evening baseball games and Aaron’s team is having a winning year.  It’s an irresistible combination as a spectator/mom.
  3. Listening to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I’ve recently gotten into audiobooks as an enticement to walk regularly or complete nasty chores. For most of June, I’ve listened to The Nightingale, A WWII story that focuses on the experiences of two very different sisters in Nazi occupied France.  The narrator, Polly Stone, does a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life and I’m transported to another, often sad and dark but ultimately hopeful, world.
  4. Summer reading lists.  I love reading articles and blog posts about books and the summer reading lists are jam-packed with great suggestions.  Considering my massive TBR pile, perusing lists of tempting books is rather counter-productive but I can’t seem to help myself.  If you are wondering what book you should take with you to the pool, beach, or your next vacation these sites are good places to start: Modern Mrs. Darcy, The Bookbub Blog, and Popsugar.
  5. The front porch.  My front porch is shaded for most of the day and secluded from the street by burning bush and holly.  It is private and comfy and I have already whiled away many pleasant hours reading a good book, watching a thunderstorm roll in, or relaxing with my husband in the late evening after a long, busy day.

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I hope you are taking time to enjoy the small pleasures of summer and of life.  Please tell me about them in the comments!