Archive for Fantasy

Booktalk: Splintered by A.G. Howard

Splintered cover

I’ve been a fan of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for years.  I’ve read the original edition, I own The Annotated Alice, and I’ve enjoyed several modern-day spinoffs including the alarmingly stupendous American McGee’s Alice videogame.  And while I was reading Splintered, it quickly became one of my favorite variations on this story.  If you’re a fan of this book, you can visit A.G. Howard’s website to learn more about it, as well as the sequel Unhinged that just came out in January!


The women in Alyssa’s family had two things in common.  The first thing was that their names were all alike.  There was Alyssa, her mother Alison, her grandmother Alicia … all going back to her great-great-great grandmother Alice.  Who, when she was a little girl, told Lewis Carroll a story that he turned into a book called Alice in Wonderland.  The other thing all of these women had in common was that all of them had a history of mental illness.  In fact, Alyssa’s mother is locked up in an asylum where Alyssa and her father visit her every week.

Well, it’s one thing to have crazy people in your family.  But it’s another thing to think that you’re going crazy, too.  Ever since she was in fifth grade, Alyssa has been hearing voices.  She’s also been having nightmares about fighting for her life and losing her head in Wonderland.  But she’s afraid to tell anyone about the voices or the nightmares.  Because then they might lock her up in an asylum, just like her mother.

And then, during one of their weekly visits, Alyssa’s mother tells her that the women in their family are cursed.  She also tells Alyssa that the only way to break the curse is to go to England, find the rabbit hole that Alice used so many years ago, and return to Wonderland.

Alyssa is going to discover that not only is Wonderland real, but that it’s a dark and dangerous place.  She’s also going to learn that the women in her family weren’t so crazy after all.

Booktalk: September Girls by Bennett Madison

September Girls cover

I first picked up September Girls because I was searching for new books with classic themes.  What I didn’t expect to find (and what the cover didn’t prepare me for) was that it was primarily told from a boy’s point of view.  I also didn’t expect that behind the magical/romantic elements was a deeper story about family dynamics and family tensions.  I wish that boys would read this book, although for many of them the title and the cover would probably be a dealbreaker.  For any teens who DO read this book, though, I think they’ll find an unusual story that is memorable on many levels.  This is also a excellent candidate for a booklist I’ve been compiling in my head called “Romance Books For Readers Who Think They Hate Romances.”

Check out Bennett Madison’s website to learn more about September Girls!


When Sam’s father decided to take Sam and his brother Jeff to live in a beach house for the summer, it seemed like a good idea.  It was a chance for the three of them to get out of the house and just relax.  It was a chance for them to forget for a while about how Mom left them a few weeks after Christmas, and how she didn’t say when or IF she was ever coming back.

Once they got to the beach, it was pretty easy to forget about how lousy things were at home because there were so many beautiful girls there.  And as Sam started noticing, there were girls and then there were Girls.  With a capital G.  All of these Girls were beautiful in an almost identical way.  All of them were blonde.  And as Sam learned when he started talking to them, they all had the same accent.  It was a strange accent that was very difficult to place, but the Girls said they were from Russia.

As the days turned into weeks, Sam and Jeff started spending more time with the Girls.  Jeff was hanging out Kristle and Sam was hanging out with DeeDee.  The more Sam talked to DeeDee the more he learned about her, but he was also frustrated because of all the things she wouldn’t tell him.  She wouldn’t tell him what happened to her parents, why she was so afraid of the ocean, why the Girls acted so strangely around him, or where they were really from.

They don’t know it yet, but by the end of the summer, Sam and Jeff are going to discover the secret of this beach and the mysterious Girls who live there.  And that secret will be stranger than they ever imagined.

Booktalk: Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Lies Knives cover

I first picked up Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses because I love fairy tales, I love retellings of fairy tales, and (I confess) I thought that a poem-format book would make for an easy booktalk.  But the more I read, the more I realized that I didn’t want to read any of the poems out loud both because of the “mature” language and because I didn’t want to limit myself to just one or two stories.  So instead I wrote the booktalk in more of a list format, so that listeners will get some idea of the range of stories in this book.

If you go to Ron Koertge’s website, you can learn more about this and his other books.  I’ll confess that I’d only read his novels before, but if you’re interested in poetry he has another recent release that might interest you, as well.

ETA: This booktalk had a really fast turnaround time (I recorded it about two minutes after writing it).  Then I realized after I’d posted this episode that I made a couple of small but vital grammatical errors in my recorded booktalk.  I’ve fixed the errors in the printed version below.  My apologies for the confusion.


Once upon a time, people made some bad decisions.

Two girls listened to their mother, and turned against their beautiful stepsister.  A man broke into a witch’s garden because his pregnant wife was craving a salad.  The Beast hoped that Beauty would fall in love with him.  A girl was kind enough to share her food with a stranger.  A man promised that his daughter could spin straw into gold.  And a girl wondered what it would be like to be eaten by a wolf.

Yes, there’s magic, and danger, and punishments, and rewards, and falling in and out of love, and revenge, and death.  But most of these stories don’t end QUITE the way you’d expect.

Booktalk: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling cover

Graceling is an exciting and dark fantasy story featuring a conflicted female protagonist who will alternately make readers root for her and fear her.  Now, while I happen to be a female reader who enjoys fantasy novels, I know that books that are perceived as “girl books” and “fantasy books” have the potential to turn off prospective readers (especially boys).  Which is why I happen to be a big fan of this cover — yes, there’s a girl on the cover, but we can only see one of her eyes, and that eye is reflected in a shiny weapon!  So I’m pretty sure that a boy could be seen reading this book without risk of being thrown out of the testosterone club.

Oh, and BTW, my prep work for this episode led me to a very handy website that I’d like to share.  When browsing around on Kristin Cashore’s website to double-check the pronunciation of her name (I had two guesses, and they both turned out to be wrong), I followed her directions to this lovely author name pronunciation guide!  It’s very handy if you’d like to find out just how many authors’ names you’ve been mis-pronouncing all this time (oops!) so that you can correct those mistakes in the future.  And it’s why I now know that “Scieszka” rhymes with “Fresca” and that “Riordan” uses a long “i” sound, like in “rye bread.”


Katsa is a very unusual girl.
She is strong-willed and independent.
She has one blue eye and one green eye.
And she can kill a grown man with her bare hands.

Usually she doesn’t kill them, though.  Usually she tortures them, these men who don’t meet the demands of her uncle, the king.

When Katsa first showed signs of having two-colored eyes, everyone waited to see what her Grace would turn out to be.  Some people with different-colored eyes were natural experts at something practical, like cooking or sewing.  Some had a less impressive ability, like being an expert in swimming.

But when Katsa was a little girl, she killed a man with her bare hands.  That’s when everyone realized what her Grace was … and that’s when everyone became afraid of her.

Booktalk: Asylum by Madeleine Roux

Asylum cover

When you pick up Asylum and flip through the pages, you can’t help but notice its visual style.  That’s because, like its popular predecessor Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, creepy old (or old-looking) photographs are incorporated into the text.  In this book, Madeleine Roux has created a frightening story about ordinary teens who are trapped in extraordinary circumstances.  The photographs taken in actual asylums simply add to the mood and make this book even more memorable.


The teenagers who show up at the New Hampshire College Prep program think that they’re going to have a life-changing experience this summer.  But when they show up at the school, they discover that the dorm where they will be living for the summer is a very old building that was once used as an asylum for the criminally insane.  And that’s when the idea of a life-changing experience starts to feel a little creepy.

When Dan gets to his dorm room and starts to unpack, he opens one of the drawers and inside that drawer he finds an old photograph of a man’s face.  The photograph is old and faded, and the man looks very stern and serious.  But the scariest thing about the photograph is that someone has completely scratched out the man’s eyes.

When Dan shows the picture to his roommate, his roommate says that he doesn’t know where the picture came from … but that there are lots of pictures and papers in the old warden’s office downstairs.  When Dan and his friends, Abby and Jordan, decide to go downstairs and start exploring in the old warden’s office, they’re going to discover that this building is holding more secrets than they ever imagined … and that some of the asylum’s residents aren’t quite as dead as everyone believes.

Booktalk: Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt

Jane the Fox and Me cover

I’ve been a fan of graphic novels for years, but I usually booktalk them like standard fiction books and keep the covers closed.  However, Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt was a very unique case.   That’s because the book is larger than most, sturdier than most, and the artwork by Isabelle Arsenault is more unique than most.  So I just HAD to highlight the artwork in my booktalk.

When I’m introducing each of the characters at the beginning of the booktalk, I’m pointing to each of their faces on the cover.  When I say, “This is what Helene’s world looks like in real life,” I’m holding the book open to pages 14-15.  These are black and white drawings showing Helene looking unhappy and alone, both inside at school and outside at a bus stop.  And then when I say, “But THIS is what the world looks like whenever she starts reading Jane Eyre,” I’m holding the book open to pages 28-29.  These pages show examples of how the artwork shifts to a more colorful and detailed style, as Jane is hugged by a little girl in one scene and speaks to Mr. Rochester in another.

Oh, and in an entertaining side-note, when I was holding up those pages during a recent class visit, a sharp-eyed seventh grader pointed at the book and shouted, “Hey, I see the fox!”  Because yes, there is a fox in Mr. Rochester’s study that is a visual foreshadowing of the fox that Helene will meet in real life.


This is Helene.  She’s having a really bad year at school.  The girls who were her friends last year have decided that they’re not going to be her friends any more.  They’ve also decided that she’s fat and ugly, and they make fun of her whenever they can.

This is the fox.  Helene will meet him later.

This is Jane, and she’s the main character in a book called Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  When Helene is feeling sad and lonely, she starts reading this book.  And then suddenly, whenever Helene starts reading, her whole world changes.

This is what Helene’s world looks like in real life.  This is the world in which she’s sad and lonely, in which the girls who used to be her friends now make fun of her.

But THIS is what the world looks like whenever she starts reading Jane Eyre.  Now Jane was plain, and poor, and she didn’t have any friends, either.  But still, she found love, and that love changed the direction of her life.

The more Helene reads Jane Eyre, the more her own life is going to change.

Booktalk: Darkness Before Dawn by J.A. London

Darkness Before Dawn cover

Okay, so do you see that cover?  The one featuring the pretty girl in the long pretty dress?  Well, now you know the #1 reason that my eyes slid right over this book when it first came out.  Because, as I may have mentioned before, there are way too many YA books published nowadays featuring pretty girls in long pretty dresses, and I started getting sick of them after a while.  It wasn’t until I was recently compiling a list of scary books that I discovered, really looked at, and finally READ this book.  And that’s when I learned that it defied my expectations.

Yes, in answer to your follow-up question, Darkness Before Dawn is about a pretty girl who sometimes wears a long pretty dress.  But since Dawn is a human delegate who meets with one of the most powerful vampires in the world, and since part of the etiquette is that she has to dress in a formal, old-fashioned way whenever she goes to meet him, the cover kind of makes sense!  What I liked about this story is that it’s about a modern girl who is being pulled in different directions romantically, all while dealing with danger, betrayal, and REALLY dangerous vampires.  Oh, and when I showed this book to my Teen Advisory Group, their first reaction was to ask me (in an eye-rolling way) if it was about vampires that sparkled in the sunlight.  I told them that while there was romance in this book, that these were the kinds of vampires that would burn to ashes if the sunlight hit them.  And that seemed to be a very satisfactory answer.

Check out J.A. London’s website to learn more about this book and the others that complete this dystopian/vampire/romantic trilogy (Blood-Kissed Sky and After Daybreak).  And if you visit J.A. London’s Twitter feed, you’ll learn something very unusual about the author’s identity!


Dawn has plenty of reasons to hate vampires.  Years ago, her brother died while saving her from a vampire attack.  And just three months ago, her parents were murdered while returning from an official visit to Lord Valentine, one of the most powerful vampires in the world.

Now Lord Valentine has selected Dawn to be the new human delegate to the vampires, continuing the job her father held until his untimely death.  It’s Dawn’s job to bargain with the vampires, and to set a balance between vampires and humans.  She needs to encourage people to donate enough blood to keep the vampires satisfied, so that humanity can be safe once and for all.  But bargaining with vampires is going to be hard, and trusting vampires is going to be even harder.

Dawn doesn’t know it yet, but even as she starts learning to trust people and starts hoping that a human-vampire peace can be achieved, the people she loves most in the world are in more danger than ever before.

Booktalk: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Coldest Girl in Coldtown cover

This book has been getting a lot of buzz lately, and deservedly so!  The Coldest Girl in Coldtown fuses the idea of vampires with a dystopian future, and stars some really compelling characters.  Plus, I love both the title and the cover to pieces!

Give this to your teen readers who love horror, who love vampires, and who love strong kick-ass heroines.  And make sure you visit Holly Black’s website to learn more about her novels, short stories, and graphic novels for children and teens.


When a person is bitten by a vampire, the person doesn’t turn into a vampire right away.  Usually what happens is that the person turns cold.  Not exactly living, but not quite undead, either.  The person might turn into a vampire, or might turn back into a human.

And that’s why the government built a series of Coldtowns, and surrounded each one with walls and high security.  Each Coldtown is filled with vampires, humans who want to become vampires, humans who want to be vampire victims, and humans who’ve turned cold … so they’re not quite human anymore.

All of the vampires are supposed to stay in the Coldtowns.  But vampires don’t always follow the rules.  So it’s still dangerous for humans to be out at night … and still stupid for humans to go to parties at sundown.

Last night, Tana went to a sundown party.  This morning she woke up in the bathtub, and discovered that almost everyone else in the house was dead.  Now she’s on the strangest road trip ever, with her ex-boyfriend and a vampire who probably wants to kill both of them.  And Tana is driving all of them to the nearest Coldtown.

Booktalk: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline cover

Welcome to my first spooky booktalk selection for October!  Okay, first I’m going to tell you why I love this book to pieces, and why it’s one of my favorite booktalks I’ve ever written.  Then I’m going to tell you why I don’t booktalk it any more.

Let’s start with the love.  Neil Gaiman has a very simple, clear, and poetic writing style that is easy to understand yet often profound.  He’s demonstrated this style with a wide range of writing over the years, for adult audiences (the Sandman graphic novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane), for children (The Wolves in the Walls) and for a crossover audience of older children and younger teens (The Graveyard Book and Coraline).  And YES, I know he’s written many more books — those are just some of MY favorites, okay?  Anyway, I love Coraline in particular because it’s scary without being bloody or gruesome, but it’s also very creepy in a “deep inside we’re all afraid of dolls and clowns” kind of way.

I mean … buttons instead of eyes?  SHUDDER

I also like this booktalk because I think it covers that creepy atmosphere very nicely (if I do say so myself).  And the use of repetition works particularly well when you’re sharing a story that has a fairy tale kind of quality.  It’s one thing to tell a story to a kindergarten class and see them start to nod their heads and mouth along with the phrases you repeat in a story.  But it’s very different (and very rare) to see the same kind of reaction in a 7th grade class.  I’ve shared this booktalk with middle school classes many times over the years, and on multiple occasions I’ve seen 7th graders mouthing along with my repetitions of the phrase “… but not quite.”

As to why I don’t booktalk it any more … well, some of you have figured that out already.  As I mentioned in my “Are There Any Books That I Shouldn’t Booktalk?” episode, I usually stop booktalking a book when I know that it’s been turned into a movie, especially if it’s a big-budget release that many people have seen.  Because it’s kind of pointless to drum up the whole “You’ll have to read the book if you want to know the ending!” vibe if half of your audience already knows what happens at the end of the story.  That being said, since the movie came out a while ago and it isn’t as fresh in everyone’s minds, I wouldn’t mind working this booktalk back into my repertoire again.  After all, a great book is still a great book.

If you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing (and you should be), make sure you check out his books for adults, kids, and everyone in between.  And in case you’re wondering if there are any more literary frontiers he hasn’t conquered yet, I should also point out that he’s recently developed a video game called Wayward Manor that is going to be coming out within the next few months.  Jeez, what CAN’T this guy do???


Coraline and her family moved into a very old house.  As Coraline began exploring the grounds, she discovered many interesting things.  She discovered a rose garden that was all overgrown, a tennis court where the net was rotting away, and a dangerous old well that was covered up by planks of wood.  When Coraline explored inside the house, she discovered something else.  There were fourteen doors, but only thirteen of them were open.  The last door was locked.  When Coraline asked her mother about it, she told her that it went nowhere.  She unlocked the door, and showed Coraline the brick wall on the other side.  It really went nowhere.

That night, Coraline’s strange dreams began.  She dreamed that she heard a creaking noise – almost like an old door being opened.  She also dreamed that she saw little black shapes with little red eyes and sharp yellow teeth.

And as the days passed, Coraline’s dreams grew even stranger, like the time she dreamed that she unlocked the door herself, and that instead of a brick wall there was a hallway on the other side, and that the hallway led into a house that looked almost like hers but not quite … and that she walked into a kitchen that was almost like hers but not quite … and that she saw a woman who was almost like her mother but not quite.  Because this woman had skin as white as paper … and long fingers with curved sharp fingernails … and big black buttons instead of eyes.

And this was the worst kind of dream for Coraline to have, because, in fact, she wasn’t dreaming.  This time, Coraline was wide awake.

Teen Horror Books: Vampires, Zombies, and More!

Strange Angels coverRot and RuinColdest Girl in Coldtown cover

In this episode, I give a brief overview of one of my favorite genres and talk about the horror authors I used to read when I was growing up.  Then I talk about some of my favorite teen horror novels that you can find on library and bookstore shelves today:

The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Strange Angels by Lili St. Crow
iDrakula by Bekka Black
Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry
Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black