This very satisfying debut fiction from a seasoned food writer was delightful to listen to on audiobook CD. Julia Whelan got most of the parts spot on, and even though deepening her voice for the male characters is a bit comical, the lively reading of Ruth Reichl’s intriguing tale and multifarious characters kept my daughter and me engaged thoroughly. She and I enjoy sharing many of the same books, especially adult titles that also hold appeal for teens. In fact, I would not be surprised to see Delicious! turning up among YALSA’s 2015 Alex Award nominees for books published in 2014—I hope, I hope!
Billie Breslin, also known as Wilhelmina to the Fontanari family, where Sal calls her Willie, feels fortunate to have landed a competitive position at Delicious magazine (obviously inspired by Gourmet, which discontinued in 2009 and was last headed by Ruth Reichl as editor). It doesn’t take long for Billie’s extraordinary palate to be recognized; she has the uncanny talent for detecting even the most obscure ingredients and flavors and has a knack for suggesting the precise tweak needed to perfect a recipe. Yet, she adamantly claims that she is definitely no cook! Her new friends in New York soon suspect she’s harboring some darkly saddening secret, however. Meanwhile, she’s determined to work her way into food writing, which she quickly and very cleverly accomplishes.
Delicious magazine closes down, but Billie is retained to handle customer service matters, working solo in the Timbers mansion, where she stumbles upon a secret room. Mysteriously secreted letters slowly reveal the details of a World War II correspondence between a 12-year-old girl interested in cooking and Chef James Beard when he was on staff at the magazine. We’re also provided with letters written in the present, diary-like words Billie addresses to her older sister. This partially epistolary read brings the reader deeper into the thoughts of our leading lady. The plot revolves around Billie’s collaboration with Sammy and Mitch to preserve the historic letters and library before it’s too late.
Some of the most remarkable characters in Reichl’s very clever and page-turning tale are those who are not actually in this story but mentioned in the letters and by the characters, the librarians who organized the forbidden library and the legendary James Beard. Along the way, readers will learn fascinating details about war-time prejudices and the history of culinary challenges during rationing. Readers will even be taken on an architectural history tour of New York and learn historical tidbits about the Underground Railroad. Delicious! is delightful, and it is so pleasing to see one of America’s food-writing favorites succeed as a novelist too.
Check the WRL catalog for Delicious!
Or check out the audiobook, read by Julia Whelan.
I have written here about Ted Kooser before, as part of my annual April poetry posts. As I was browsing the new book cart, I was happy to discover that he has a new collection of poems out, and that we had gotten a copy here at the library.
Here, as in his previous collections, Kooser presents us with ordinary lives and quotidian objects, but invests them, through his feel for language, with a power we might not have seen on our own. That is his achievement as a poet, to make the ordinary extraordinary. There is a sense in the poems of endings and losses. Not in an awful way necessarily, but more in a recognition that all things, including the poet’s life, will reach an end. But there is hope too. I particularly was touched by “Swinging from Parents”:
The child walks between her father and mother,
holding their hands. She makes the shape of the y
at the end of infancy, and lifts her feet
the way the y pulls up its feet, and swings
like the v in love, between an o and e
who are strong and steady and as far as she knows
will be there to swing from forever. Sometimes
her father, using his free hand, points to something
and says its name, the way the arm of the r
points into the future at the end of father.
Or the r at the end of forever. It’s that forever
the child puts her trust in, lifting her knees,
swinging her feet out over the world.
Another wonderful section of the book was titled “Estate Sale.” Here Kooser offers a series of short poems on things that have been left behind by people whose lives have moved on. The sequence concludes with these lines:
And among these homely things,
an antique gilded harp,
its dusty strings like a curtain
drawn over the silence,
stroked by fingers of light.
Check the WRL catalog for Splitting an Order.
I thought that I had finally exhausted the possibilities of Victorian ghost stories to write about at Halloween time. I have covered the Jameses, Henry and M.R., LeFanu, as well as all the anthologies (here, here, and here), or so I thought. But one dark, rainy, October afternoon, while prowling the quiet stacks of the library in forlorn hope of discovering something occult, I came across a mysterious, worn, leather-bound tome whose title, as best it could be read, was Necronom…. OK, it was actually an unusually warm autumn day, bright and sunny, the library was packed, and the book was a trade paperback copy of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. It was a good find nonetheless, and most likely safer than dipping into the Necronomicon, that accursed text.
Here, the editors have assembled a fascinating collection of less common ghost stories from both well-known writers of the Victorian period as well as those whose star has perhaps fallen (or maybe never really rose). Le Fanu is here as is Elizabeth Gaskell. Fantasist George MacDonald has a place as do Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and E. Nesbit. Many of these authors are better known for other genres of work than ghost stories, but I can attest that they all can raise the hair on the back of your neck in a fashion suited to the season. A host of lesser known writers also appear in the collection. I particularly enjoyed R. S. Hawker’s “The Botathen Ghost” from 1867, a story of a haunted preacher in 17th-century England.
Like most early ghost stories, these tales appeal more to psychological terror than the gore and violence that seem to dominate contemporary horror writing. Revenants, arcane objects, and unusual books and paintings are often at the center of the tale, and handling them as often as not is definitely the wrong thing to do. These are great stories for reading aloud, as many of them probably were intended to be. But also just fun reading in the fall when the dark comes early, and the shadows begin to creep.
Check the WRL catalog for The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories.
Jennifer D. shares this review:
Two stories are being told as the novel begins, one about Peter and one about Thea, and as the book progresses the stories converge in an unexpected way.
Thea lives underneath Greenland in a community called Gracehope. The inhabitants have lived under the ice for centuries aided by technology that far surpasses that on the surface—what they call the “wider world.” Gracehope is beginning to grow beyond its means, and Thea believes that it is time for her people to rejoin the rest of the world. Her mother died in pursuit of a way to expand Gracehope, and the desire for exploration has certainly been passed along to her daughter. Thea meets with great resistance, however, because Gracehope’s inhabitants remember how savagely they were once hunted in the world above. Gracehope is their refuge.
Peter is the son of a scientist who studies glaciers, and for the first time he will be accompanying his parents on a research trip to Greenland. His mother is strangely nervous about his coming along, and not just the “he’ll miss so much school” type of nervous. She has been known to have episodes where she seems to detach from life, which his father explains away by saying she has a headache. Peter knows something else is wrong. He’s had a headache before, and it didn’t make him act like that. When his mother starts questioning Peter about how his head feels, he decides not to tell her his secret. One of his headaches came with a vision, a glimpse into the future.
Aside from its imagining a community beneath Greenland, First Light is a subtle fantasy story. Certain characters have abilities outside the norm, but this is not an explosively supernatural novel. It’s an excellent story filled with questions that I’m pleased to say are all answered well enough for me by the end. It’s a nice change from the cliff-hanging series titles that are so popular right now. I can’t wait to see what Ms. Stead has in store for us next.
Check the WRL catalog for First Light.
Hope Vestergaard’s What Do You Do When a Monster Says Boo? is a wonderful book about sibling behavior, and a great model for older siblings.
Throughout the book, the “monster” does all sorts of bad things – pulling things, throwing hair, and yelling, to name a few. The book shows the best ways to handle little monsters, as well as some ways that aren’t so good.
When your monster is your little brother or sister it may be hard to keep your cool. What Do You Do When a Monster Says Boo? can show kids what it looks like to be patient with a hyper or misbehaving younger sibling.
Children of all ages will laugh at the monster acting silly, and parents will appreciate the suggestions for older siblings that the book gently provides.
This rhyming book has wonderful illustrations, and is a great choice to read to the whole family.
Check the WRL catalog for What Do You Do–When a Monster Says Boo?
Writing yesterday about Michael Pollan’s Cooked got me thinking about other great books about food and its preparation. In my mind, Harold McGee’s masterful On Food and Cooking is the best writing I have found on food, covering chemistry, preparation, taste, individual fruits, vegetables, fish, cheese, meats, and pretty much anything else you might eat—algae anyone?
Whether you want to know about sugar substitutes and their qualities (p. 660-661), how baking pans affect the qualities of the item being baked (p. 563), what drinkers mean when they talk about the “tears” in strong wines or spirits (p. 717), or how you get from tea leaves to black, Oolong, or green tea (both Chinese and Japanese) (p. 438) there is something here for you.
Along the way, McGee includes recipes, food lore, quotations, and more, but the heart of the book is the comprehensive exploration of how cooking, fermenting, and other forms of processing affect the taste, texture, and edibility of food stuffs. An obvious appeal here is for readers who are cooks themselves and are perhaps developing new recipes. McGee is a great source for figuring out how to best combine and prepare ingredients. The book also is a useful compendium of cultural histories of food and ingredients. For instance, the chapter “Cereal Doughs and Batters” begins with a section on the evolution of bread from prehistoric to modern times (concluding with a section on “The decline and revival of traditional breads.”
On Food and Cooking is best read by dipping into an chapter that looks interesting, but be forewarned, McGee is an addictive writer, and, like a bag of potato chips, you will find yourself wanting to read just one more section. For readers who have forgotten their chemistry, there is a helpful “Chemistry Primer” at the end of the book that covers atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, energy, and the phases of matter. Any food lover will find a banquet of topics here to feast on.
Check the WRL catalog for On Food and Cooking.
Ever since purchasing On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee back in the 1980s, I have been a fan of books that explore the scientific and cultural aspects of food and its preparation. I recently picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s wonderful Cooked and was delighted to discover another title I need to add to my permanent collection of food books.
Pollan is probably best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he explores in sobering fashion how we eat in the 21st century. In Cooked, he looks at the four elements—fire, water, air, and earth—and how humans use these elements to transform animals and plants into food. Pollan has a clear affection for food and food preparation, and his enthusiasm and passion drive the stories here. In each of the sections of the book Pollan seeks out experts in the field—a barbeque grill master, a master baker, wheat growers, brewers, cheesemakers, and more—and talks with them about their work. Like John McPhee, another of my favorite writers, Pollan gives his characters the stage and lets them talk about their own passions in their voices.
Pollan also writes engagingly about his own attempts at cooking. Pollan writes about grilling, making liquid-based dishes, baking bread, and brewing not only as an observer but also as a participant. In doing so, he makes clear the value in preparing your own food from scratch, rather than purchasing processed meals. Cooking forces us to slow down, think about things closely, and then to share with family and friends the results of our work.
Cooked also provides a somewhat bleak picture of contemporary eating habits and commercial food preparation. In exploring the concepts of taste, Pollan relates how the processed food that makes up a disturbing percentage of our diet relies on unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar, and salt to make up for the lack of careful, and slow, preparation. After reading Cooked you may come away wanting to spend a bit more time in the kitchen, baking a loaf of sourdough bread, making a hearty stew for a cool fall evening’s meal, or appreciating a well-aged cheese. At least I hope so.
Check the WRL catalog for Cooked.
Possum Come a-Knockin’ is a rhyming-text book that shows a family in the country going about their business when they get an unusual visitor.
Granny and Pappy, Ma and Pa, and Brother and Sis are all too wrapped up in their activities to notice someone knocking at the door, but Tom-cat, Coon-dawg, and the narrator (who calls herself “me”) all know something isn’t right. They all hear someone knock-knock-knocking on the door.
You’ll watch through the window as each member of the family goes on knittin’ and whittlin’ and cookin’ taters, until finally the pets cause such a ruckus that they go to investigate. But when they open the door, the mischievous possum is nowhere to be found!
This book, written by Nancy Van Laan, is fun to read aloud, and you and your children will laugh at the great illustrations. Grab a copy and have fun watching this zany family!
Check the WRL catalog for Possum Come a-Knockin’.
Charlotte shares this review:
You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst. Unless you’re me. I came here because my mother said I had to.
The original setting is the first great thing about this book: it’s 1935, and Moose Flanagan’s family has just moved to Alcatraz. His father works as an electrician and part-time guard on the famous prison island. Between his father’s long work hours and the family’s ongoing troubles trying to raise his special-needs sister Natalie, no one seems to have much time for Moose. So maybe no one will notice this scheme cooked up by the warden’s daughter, a 12-year-old femme fatale named Piper, to market Alcatraz laundry service—the only laundry service run by convicted felons!—to kids at school.
In 1935, no one used the word “autistic” yet, which makes it even harder for Moose to explain why his 16-year-old sister needs babysitting, or throws tantrums, or has such a phenomenal gift for numbers. Mrs. Flanagan has tried everything she can imagine to break through Natalie’s isolation. Her last hopes are fixed on a progressive, experimental boarding school, the Esther P. Marinoff. But if the school won’t let Natalie enroll…
I expected this book to be funny, but I did not expect it to bring tears to my eyes, which may have happened. Sure, the gangster legends and the rules of life on a prison island are interesting. Did you know Al Capone started the first soup kitchen in Chicago?
But this is not a one-gimmick book; it’s a compassionate story about an ordinary, likable family under a lot of stress. There are tensions in every relationship, especially between Moose, a kid shouldering the responsibilities of an adult, and his mother, who can’t enjoy her son’s accomplishments without resenting the things her daughter will never have. The character of Natalie was inspired by the author’s sister, Gina, who had a severe form of autism; maybe that’s why both the strengths and the weaknesses in this family seem so true.
And it’s funny. If you’ve already enjoyed this book, head straight for the sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, in which Piper continues to be a real piece of work, Moose finds it difficult to be best friends with everybody, and J. Edgar Hoover gets his pocket picked during dinner. Now with more gangster action!
Check the WRL catalog for Al Capone Does My Shirts.
Or try the audiobook.
Blackberry Banquet is a delightful treat for young summer readers. Perfect for expressive shared reading between adults and children, this story infuses elements of sequence, patterning, rhyme, and characterization, making it a great story for young readers.
Set in the forest, Blackberry Banquet tells the story of different animals that visit the blackberry bush to enjoy some fresh, sweet berries. A new animal and its accompanied sounds appear on each new page, and each page features an animal slightly bigger than the previous one until finally, a BEAR appears at the blackberry bush and frightens all of the animals away.
Besides writing a delightful story, the author has included non-fiction information on the back pages, including a recipe for blackberry ice-cream, a diagram to introduce food chains, and other factual information about the animals in the book.
This colorful book with bright, engaging illustrations by Lisa Downey reminds me of Jan Brett’s stories The Mitten and The Hat. To experience it for yourself, be sure to check out a copy of Blackberry Banquet!
Check the WRL catalog for Blackberry Banquet.
Jennifer D. shares this review:
Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror is a volume of short stories told within the framework of a great uncle sharing scary tales with his young nephew. These are not terribly terrifying tales, but they are just eerie enough to capture a wide audience. They are also good for those of us who like a good scary shiver, but do not want to be kept awake all night with fright.
Among my favorites of Uncle Montague’s tales are “The Un-Door”, about two con-artists performing a séance which goes very wrong, “The Gilt Frame”, in which a girl is offered three wishes and is not very careful with them, and “A Ghost Story”, which tells the story of a girl attending a wedding to which she was invited, but at which she is not really welcome. “The Demon Bench End”, and “Offerings” are fine stories, as well. The impetus for telling these tales comes from items decorating Uncle Montague’s study – artifacts from the lives of those whose stories he now tells. We come to learn that Uncle Montague has a story of his own to tell.
For those looking for more just-spooky-enough stories, this book is followed by Priestley’s Tales of Terror from the Black Ship.
Check the WRL catalog for Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror.
My final film review this week is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, the French horror classic that influenced Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster of a run-down boarding school for boys. He’s a mean-spirited and petty man whose cruelty extends to his long-suffering wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot), and his mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), both teachers at the school.
After Michel beats her the night before a school break, Nicole decides to take action. She enlists Christina’s help in a plan to drug then murder Michel. Although she is initially reluctant, Christina agrees to help Nicole. The two women leave the school and travel to Nicole’s apartment, where Nicole laces a bottle of wine with a powerful sedative. Christina then calls Michel and tells him she is making plans for a divorce. Enraged, Michel goes to Nicole’s apartment to confront his wife. During the course of the argument, he drinks some of the wine and passes out. With Christina’s help, Nicole drowns Michel in the bathtub. The two women take Michel’s body back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool. When his body rises to the surface, it will appear that his death was an accidental drowning.
Although the plan is seemingly foolproof, Christina becomes concerned the following day when Michel’s body does not surface. When the women finally have the pool drained, they make a shocking discovery: Michel’s corpse is not in the pool. Christina launches a search for her husband, following up on stories of unidentified bodies and hiring Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), a retired detective. At the same time, bizarre clues and sightings of the deceased Michel test Christina’s fragile health and her alliance with Nicole.
Les Diaboliques is a cunning thriller that relies on surprise twists and unusual clues to generate suspense. The pacing is particularly effective; Clouzot gradually builds the tension as Christina comes to realize she’s not sure if her husband is dead or alive. The acting is first-rate. Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret give strong, nuanced performances. I also enjoyed Charles Vanel’s supporting performance as Fichet. On the surface, Fichet appears to be a good-natured, if occasionally bumbling, detective; however, he has a sharp mind and keen insight that helps further the investigation.
Equal parts murder mystery and ghost story, Les Diaboliques should appeal to fans of classic horror films and detective stories.
Les Diaboliques is in French with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for Les Diaboliques
Life is relatively uneventful for high school student Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale). When he’s not spending time with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), or best friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), he’s watching horror films. He’s particularly enamored of a late night horror film series called Fright Night, hosted by Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a one-time star of Hammer-style vampire films.
Charley’s routine life is interrupted when the Victorian mansion next door is purchased by a man named Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon). Although Charley’s mother insists Jerry bought the mansion because he restores houses for a living, odd incidents around the house convince Charley that Jerry may be a vampire. One night, Charley sees Jerry and his housemate Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) carrying what looks like a coffin into the basement. A few nights later, a young woman who visited Jerry’s house turns up dead. Charley starts watching the house through his bedroom window and soon gets the proof he needs when he sees Jerry biting a woman’s neck.
Convinced he needs to do something to stop Jerry, Charley first turns to his local police department. Billy offers plausible explanations for everything Charley saw and the officer ultimately dismisses Charley’s story, believing he has an overactive imagination. Amy and Ed are skeptical of Charley’s story as well, and in desperation he turns to the one person he thinks will believe him: Peter Vincent. This turns into yet another dead end as Peter informs him that Fright Night is being cancelled because, “The kids today don’t have the patience for vampires. They want to see some mad slasher running around and chopping off heads.” Thinking Charley is an obsessed fan, Peter speeds away from the station.
Concerned that Charley’s belief that Jerry is a vampire is affecting his mental state, Amy and Ed contact Peter and offer to pay him if he will demonstrate to Charley that Jerry is not a vampire. Peter agrees, and a meeting is arranged with Jerry. The meeting is intended to be a harmless way of putting Charley’s mind at ease; however, the lives of Charley, Ed, Amy and Peter are put in grave danger when Peter accidently discovers that Jerry really is a vampire.
What I enjoy most about Fright Night is the way Holland (who also wrote the screenplay) deftly mixes humor with horror. The scenes from Peter Vincent’s show, particularly the clips from Vincent’s films – complete with Roddy McDowall in a bad wig – gently parody the Gothic vampire films popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Not surprisingly, the Peter Vincent character has some of the best lines in the film and McDowall gives a wonderfully droll performance. The rest of the cast deliver solid performances, particularly Chris Sarandon as the charming and seductive Jerry Dandridge. The elaborate visual effects are effective and creepy, but don’t overwhelm the story.
A remake was released in 2011, with Colin Farrell playing the role of Jerry Dandridge and David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who) as Peter Vincent, a Las Vegas magician and vampire expert. I recommend the original film, but fans of Colin Farrell and David Tennant might enjoy the remake.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) enjoys a prosperous career as a banker with all the trappings of success; however, he has few personal connections and is estranged from his former wife Elizabeth and younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). On Nicholas’ 48th birthday, Conrad pays him a surprise visit and gives him a voucher from a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). If Nicholas redeems this voucher, he will receive a virtual reality game custom designed for him. Conrad refuses to describe the game in detail, but insists that it is a life-changing experience.
Intrigued, Nicholas visits CRS and meets with a man named Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn). Like Conrad, he offers few specifics about the game, telling Nicholas that it’s like an “experiential Book-of the-Month club.” Nicholas decides to fill out a lengthy application for the game as well as undergo a series of physical and psychological examinations. Shortly after applying for the game, he receives a message from CRS informing him that his application was rejected. However, this message actually turns out to be the first move in Nicholas’ game.
Nicholas continues to go about his daily business, but soon cracks start appearing in his orderly world that may or may not be a part of this game. These range from the mildly annoying and inconsequential – a leaking pen and a locked briefcase – to the bizarre – a trashed hotel room filled with photos that appear to show Nicholas in compromising positions.
Along the way, Nicholas discovers clues to the game, and one of these clues leads him to a waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), who may be an innocent victim of the game or one of its key figures. As Nicholas continues to play the game, the stakes get higher, and soon the game threatens his career, finances, and life.
The Game is a fascinating portrait of a man whose carefully constructed life is completely upended by forces beyond his control. Nicholas is being manipulated, but by whom and for what purpose? Is the game a harmless, if occasionally inconvenient, diversion, or a sinister plot to gain control over his life and his fortune? Nicholas’ attempts to find answers to these questions lead him down the rabbit hole to a surreal nightmare that tests his patience and sanity.
I especially enjoyed the performances in the film. Michael Douglas is perfect as the successful but distant Nicholas, and Deborah Kara Unger brings an intriguing icy reserve as the mysterious Christine. Director David Fincher keeps the pacing sharp and focused, gradually ratcheting up the tension as the game becomes more intense and dangerous.
A complex thriller filled with unpredictable plot twists and moments of dark humor, The Game is a good choice for anyone looking for a surreal thriller this Halloween.
Check the WRL catalog for The Game
Looking for the perfect “good-night” book? Try Hillside Lullaby by Hope Vestergaard, a good night lullaby that is sure to evoke the sweetest dreams.
Hillside Lullaby tells the story of a “wild child not ready to close her eyes” and the mother who tucks her into bed. All around her, the animals outside are preparing for their night of slumber, too: the frogs, raccoon, deer, and rabbits.
Told in rhyme, Hillside Lullaby shows different views of mothers getting their children ready for bed. Children reading this book will be able to predict what animal’s bedtime routine is featured next, as each page reveals a small picture of the animal that will be detailed on the next pages. This picture book includes sweet, vibrant illustrations of the hillside and its creatures at night, making it impossible to fear the dark.
After all of the animals drift off to sleep, so too does the little girl “with the song of the hill in her head.”
Check the WRL catalog for Hillside Lullaby.
Barry shares this review:
Neil Gaiman is probably best known for his writing for adults, the superb graphic novel Sandman or carefully crafted fiction such Anansi Boys or his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. I think though that Gaiman deserves to be equally well known for his writing for children and young adults. Coraline is a sublimely creepy tale that is a perfect read on a rainy autumn evening.
As in so many tales of the supernatural, our heroine, Coraline, finds herself at loose ends. She and her parents live in an old ramshackle house that has been turned into flats. She has explored the grounds, and had encounters with the other inhabitants of the place (a pair of aging actresses and an old man who says he is training a mouse circus). On a rainy day, while exploring indoors, Coraline discovers an locked door, whose entrance, when opened, has been bricked over. The door holds a strange fascination for her though, and one day she unlocks the door to find that the bricks are gone.
Of course she goes on through, and there finds a strange version of her own world. Coraline meets her “other” parents and her strange neighbors are apparently there too, as well as a disturbing community of talking rats, who seem to have dreams of domination. Coraline quickly discovers that there are other children trapped in this seemingly pleasant, though skewed version of her home, and she takes it on herself to save them and to restore the balance of her world. She faces some horrifying creatures in her quest, and finds help where she least expected. Through his use of language and his power of description Gaiman creates a world that is both believable and chilling.
Check the WRL catalog for Coraline
The films of French director Claude Chabrol are often compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s, and in his film Merci Pour le Chocolat (based on the 1948 novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong) there is a similar level of suspense and craftsmanship.
The film opens with the wedding of Marie-Claire “Mika” Muller (Isabelle Huppert) and André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc). Mika runs her family’s successful chocolate company in Lausanne, Switzerland, and André is a famous concert pianist. This is the couple’s second chance at love. They were previously married and divorced years earlier, and reunited after the tragic death of André’s second wife, Lisbeth, a photographer. Mika’s relationship history with André is the subject of lively gossip at the wedding, with one guest telling another, “She hates losing.”
The couple lives in an elegant mansion in Lausanne with André and Lisbeth’s son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Shortly after the wedding, a young woman named Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis) pays the family a visit. Jeanne was born at the same hospital as Guillaume, and when André came to the hospital to see his wife and child, the nurse mistakenly brought Jeanne to him instead of Guillaume. Although Jeanne’s mother, Louise, insists that the error was immediately corrected, Jeanne is struck by the curious coincidence that she’s a pianist just like André. The purpose of her surprise visit is twofold: she would like additional coaching before an upcoming competition and she wants to see if it’s possible that she and Guillaume really were switched at birth.
André is impressed with Jeanne’s talent and offers to help her practice for the competition. He welcomes the chance to help an aspiring concert pianist since his son Guillaume is not musically inclined. Guillaume, however, is distant, suspicious of Jeanne’s motives for visiting his father. Mika is warm and welcoming, but an incident causes Jeanne to wonder if there’s more to Mika than meets the eye. While admiring some of Lisbeth’s photographs, Jeanne sees Mika deliberately spill a flask of hot chocolate she’s prepared for Guillaume. Jeanne asks her boyfriend Axel to help her investigate Mika and her reason for spilling the chocolate.
As Jeanne becomes more involved in the lives of André, Mika and Guillaume, long buried family secrets begin to emerge and Mika’s behavior grows increasingly unpredictable. Is Mika’s charm and elegance merely masking sinister intentions, and what is in the chocolate she always insists on preparing herself?
At the center of this gripping psychological thriller is a compelling performance by the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert. On the surface, Mika appears to be generous and caring. She opened her home to André, Lisbeth and Guillaume when they needed a stable place to live and she uses the profits from the chocolate company to fund anti-pain clinics. Although her behavior appears to be good, she secretly delights in doing things to catch people off guard, like spilling a pot of boiling water on Guillaume’s foot. Huppert’s performance captures the enigmatic nature of Mika and the compulsions that drive her behavior throughout the film.
Chabrol establishes a strong tone that perfectly fits the plot and characters. The film moves at a steady and deliberate pace as the secrets are gradually revealed. Music also plays an important part in the story and Chabrol’s use of Liszt’s Funérailles is effectively quite chilling.
Hitchcock fans looking for other well-crafted suspense movies should consider trying the films of Claude Chabrol.
Merci pour le Chocolat is in French with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for Merci pour le Chocolat
Elsie’s Bird, a perfect read for young fans of historical fiction and/or for children who have recently relocated, tells the story of a young girl named Elsie from Boston. Elsie loves the sounds of Boston: the sounds of horses’ hooves clopping on the sidewalk, the sounds of the skip-rope songs she and her friends would sing, the sounds of fisherman, the sounds of birds, the sounds of the church bell. When Elsie’s Papa decides to move them out west to the Nebraska prairie after her mother dies, Elsie feels lonely and misses the sounds of the city.
Afraid of getting lost in the tall prairie grass, Elsie chooses to stay inside most of the time and comforts herself by singing songs to her canary, Timmy Tune. When Timmy Tune escapes, Elsie abandons her fear to search for him in the tall prairie grass and ends up making unexpected friendships.
Elsie’s Bird showcases the companionship that animals can offer to humans, especially to children, and encourages children to believe that they can overcome new and difficult situations. The illustrations by Caldecott award winner David Small will transport readers to a time long ago where they can “skip-rope” on the streets of Boston and overlook the vast prairie land of the west.
Jane Yolen’s creation is a great addition to studies of the past that even children today will be able to relate to.
Check the WRL catalog for Elsie’s Bird.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is a wealthy and free-spirited socialite living in San Francisco. One afternoon she visits a pet shop, where she meets a man named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) who’s looking for a pair of lovebirds for his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Mitch has met Melanie before, but she does not recognize him. Knowing her propensity for practical jokes, Mitch decides to play one of his own and pretends to mistake her for a sales clerk. Melanie’s anger at Mitch over his joke quickly turns to interest. She makes a few inquiries and discovers he lives in Bodega Bay with Cathy and his widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Determined to see him again, Melanie purchases lovebirds as a surprise gift for Cathy and travels to Bodega Bay to visit Mitch and his family.
Once she arrives in Bodega Bay, Melanie discovers that Mitch’s house is only accessible by boat. She also meets several of the local residents, including Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), Cathy’s teacher and Mitch’s former lover. She rents a boat, goes to the house while Mitch and his family are out, and leaves the birds along with a note for Cathy. Just as she’s heading back, Mitch sees her on the water and watches as she’s inexplicably attacked by a seagull. He offers his assistance and invites her to dinner that evening. Melanie wasn’t planning on spending the night in Bodega Bay, but she’s interested in Mitch, so she rents a room in Annie’s house for the night and accepts the dinner invitation.
While at the Brenners’ house for dinner, Melanie bonds with Cathy over the lovebirds, and enjoys Mitch’s company. Lydia, however, is less concerned with Mitch’s new love interest than she is about the chickens she keeps on her property. The chickens won’t eat and, curiously, the neighbors’ chickens are refusing to eat as well. The dinner ends on a sour note after Mitch teases Melanie about a scandalous escapade that made the society pages. Once she returns to Annie’s house, Melanie learns more about Mitch and Annie’s ill-fated relationship, and why Annie relocated to Bodega Bay. Mitch later calls to apologize and invites Melanie to Cathy’s birthday party. After accepting the invitation, Annie and Melanie hear a thump at the front door. They open the door and discover a dead bird on the porch.
The unusual behavior of the chickens, the seagull attack, and the dead bird on Annie’s porch are not isolated and unrelated incidents: they portend dark and sinister events involving birds, including the strange death of Lydia’s neighbor and an attack on a group of schoolchildren. Melanie’s romantic getaway quickly turns into a fight for survival as the town of Bodega Bay is inundated by scores of birds whose attacks only grow in frequency and viciousness.
The Birds is frightening because the villain is not your average horror film creature. Instead of a vampire, werewolf, or ghost, the citizens of Bodega Bay are facing a threat from the natural world whose motive is unknown and whose behavior is violent and unpredictable. Hitchcock builds the tension slowly, starting with odd but seemingly random events that culminate in a harrowing night for Melanie and the Brenners.
More than 50 years after its release, The Birds remains a classic of the horror genre and one of Hitchcock’s finest films.
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Charlotte shares this review:
Wisecracking brothers with swords and guns, on the run from the demons that killed their father. This could have been a run-of-the-mill teenage urban fantasy with demon hunting and chase scenes, but first-time author Brennan also gives us an intriguing, sardonic narrator who hooked me into a story I didn’t expect.
Sixteen-year-old Nick Ryves is a man of few words and many weapons. His priorities are simple: to protect his brother, Alan, at any cost, and to protect their mother, but only because Alan has some weird, sappy attachment to her. In general, other people and other people’s emotions are a waste of Nick’s time.
The Ryves brothers have stayed one step ahead of the demons for years, but this time, they’re slowed down by two kids from school: Jamie, who’s unwittingly gotten himself marked for demon possession, and his devoted sister Mae, who’s willing to do anything to get him un-marked. They’re messing up the uneasy balance of Nick’s family triangle. They’re throwing off his priorities. Alan’s taking stupid risks just to help Jamie, or maybe to impress Mae, and for the first time in their lives, he’s hiding secrets from his brother. This cannot end well.
I loved Nick’s point of view. I loved watching him try to interpret the world through his brother’s reactions and facial expressions. (And then he would cross the line from grumpy and laconic to really, truly, take-the-knives-away-from-this-boy scary, and I’d wonder what I’d gotten myself into.) Brennan springs surprises throughout the fast-paced plot. Even while I was congratulating myself on predicting some plot twist, a character would sneak around my mental blind side and do something completely unexpected.
While the focus is on brothers Nick and Alan, there’s a solid ensemble cast in which each of the characters gets a moment and some Buffyesque one-liners. The Demon’s Lexicon wraps up without a cliffhanger, but it’s also the setup for what should be a fun and unconventional series.
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