Review of The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar

The Cardturner

by Louis Sachar

Delacorte Press, New York, 2010. 336 pages.
Starred Review

Ever since he was small, Alton’s parents have drilled it into him that his great-uncle Lester is his favorite uncle. Uncle Lester is rich, very rich, and Alton’s parents want to be remembered should anything ever happen to him, God forbid. He’s only actually met Uncle Lester one time, when Alton was six, at his uncle’s sixty-fifth birthday party. When Alton’s a junior in high school, his uncle takes a turn for the worse, and his parents start thinking what they could do with his money.

One person they’re worried about is Sophie Castaneda.

“I’d heard about the Castaneda family all my life, ‘the crazy Castanedas,’ but I never quite got my uncle’s relationship to them. It was complicated, to say the least.

“From what I understood, Sophie Castaneda was the daughter of Uncle Lester’s ex-wife’s crazy sister.

“When Uncle Lester was in his twenties, he had been married for less than a year. His wife had a sister who went insane. The sister had a daughter named Sophie King, who later changed her name to Sophie Finnick, and then became Sophie Castaneda when she got married.

“See what I mean?

“According to my mother, all the Castanedas were bonkers. I met Toni Castaneda, Sophie’s daughter, at my uncle’s sixty-fifth birthday. Toni was about six years old, and I remember I was glad to find someone my own age to play with. Toni ran up to me. She covered her ears with her hands, her elbows sticking out, and shouted, ‘Shut up! Leave me alone!’ and then she ran away.

“She didn’t do that just to me. I watched her tell other people to shut up and leave her alone too. I thought she was funny, but when I tried playing that game, I got in trouble for saying shut up.”

On one of Uncle Lester’s turns for the worse, he goes blind. Alton’s Dad figures he’ll have to stop playing cards, but then his mom hears that Uncle Lester is playing cards four days a week with Toni Castaneda. They aren’t sure how he can do that when he’s blind. Then they get some insight into it:

“It was the second-to-last day of school. I didn’t have any summer plans, just a vague notion about getting a job. I had just driven Leslie to her friend Marissa’s house, and when I got home I heard my mother say, ‘Alton would love to spend time with his favorite uncle!'”

Uncle Lester wants Alton to drive him to his bridge club and be his cardturner. He will tell Alton what card to play, and Alton will play it. Toni had the job before, but then, before playing a card, she asked, “Are you sure?” thus revealing to the other players that Uncle Lester had more cards he could play. He fired Toni and wants someone who knows nothing about bridge. Alton qualifies.

It turns out that Uncle Lester — Trapp is what everyone calls him at his bridge club — is a fantastic bridge player. Alton tells him the cards in his hand at the beginning of each game, and Trapp has no trouble remembering them all and all the cards played during the game. Other people ask him for advice after the day’s play, and he can still remember the cards that were dealt.

You might think a book about playing bridge would be boring, but this is anything but. When the plot requires some detail about the game, the author inserts a whale symbol (because of all the whaling details in Moby Dick) and then a summary box, so if you choose you can skip the details and cut to the summary.

Yes, this is a book about playing bridge — Trapp would like one more shot at the national championship — but it’s also about Alton learning about his uncle and his uncle’s surprising life. And then there’s Toni Castaneda, who is Trapp’s protege as a bridge player. She doesn’t seem crazy to Alton. Too bad his best friend seems interested in her.

I especially enjoy the last third of the book. I can’t give away what happens, but it’s perfect, and what follows brings everything together.

I grew up playing Rook, which is like a very simple form of bridge, so I could follow the play pretty well. The book did make me want to learn bridge! Like other Louis Sachar books, this book strongly appealed to the mathematical side of my brain. You can think of the bridge play as a series of puzzles, which were fun to read about. It was all in the context of a very human story, adding up to a great book.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of You Can Be Happy No Matter What, by Richard Carlson

You Can Be Happy No Matter What

Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective

by Richard Carlson, PhD

New World Library, Novato, California, 1997. 141 pages.

You Can Be Happy No Matter What hit the spot for me. Some nice, practical advice on being happy.

Since my husband left me a few years ago, and I’m still going through a divorce, my life has not turned out the way I planned — not at all. But I’m bound and determined that I don’t want choices someone else made to ruin my happiness. Richard Carlson gives you some nice practical advice to help yourself be happier more of the time.

Here are some passages I liked:

“When you can recognize the feeling of happiness when it’s there, you will realize that this feeling is what you have been looking for all along. The feeling isn’t leading somewhere else — it’s the goal, not the means to a goal. If the bride-to-be understands that her happiness comes first from within, she can make the decision to marry or not to marry from a place of wisdom, not from a place of lack. If she is already happy, the marriage will also be happy. If the couple then decides to have children, the children will grow up in a happy environment without the pressure of being someone’s source of happiness. The same will be true throughout the life of any happy person. Happiness breeds a happy existence and a joyous way of looking at life….

“Happiness is right now. Your life is not a dress rehearsal for some later date — it is right here, right now. The invisible quality of happiness we have all been looking for is right here in a feeling.”

He reminds us that we don’t have to be led by our thoughts down unhappy paths:

“There’s nothing to fear from thought itself, once we understand that it’s just thought.

“Perhaps the greatest misinterpretation of this principle is to believe that the goal is to control what you think about. It isn’t. The goal is to understand thought for what it is: an ability you have that shapes your reality from the inside out. Nothing more, nothing less. What you think about is not ultimately going to determine the quality of your life, but rather the relationship you have to your own thinking — the way you manufacture your thoughts and respond to them. Do you hear your thinking as reality, or as thought?”

Another insightful comment was to lower our tolerance for stress, which I interpreted as meaning to be more aware of your feelings if you want to have positive feelings:

“Surprisingly, the solution to stress is to begin to lower our tolerance to stress. This is the opposite of what most of us have been taught, but it is the truth. Lowering our tolerance to stress is based on the simple principle that our level of internal stress will always be exactly equal to our current tolerance. This is why people who can handle lots of stress always have to do just that.

“People with extremely high levels of stress tolerance might end up with a stress-related heart attack before they begin to pay attention to what the stress is telling them. Others may end their marriage or find themselves in a recovery center for alcohol or drugs. People with lower tolerance might begin paying attention to their stress earlier, when their job first begins to seem overwhelming or when they find themselves snapping at their children. Still others, who can’t tolerate stress at all, sense that it’s time to slow down and regain perspective when they start merely having negative thoughts about their friends or family.

“The lower our tolerance is for stress, the better off we are psychologically. When our goal is to feel our stress as early as possible, we can “nip stress in the bud” earlier, and return more quickly to a positive feeling state. We have choices; in fact, we have a series of “choice points,” in any situation. The longer we wait to disregard the stressful thoughts, the more difficult it becomes to bring ourselves back to our natural state of mind. Eventually, with practice, any of us can get to the point where we are aware of our negative thoughts before they pull us off track.”

The basic format of the book covers five principles for being happy, and then talks about how to apply them. The chapters are short and simple, but there are definitely some dynamic principles here. The chapters made nice selections to read at the beginning of the day to remind me of things like this:

“To a happy person, the formula for happiness is quite simple: Regardless of what happened early this morning, last week, or last year — or what may happen later this evening, tomorrow, or three years from now — now is where happiness lies. Happy people understand that life is really nothing more than a series of present moments to experience. Mostly, they understand that right now, this very moment, is where life is truly lived.”

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books for Ages 3-4

It’s Top Ten Tuesday! The day when I give a list of ten recommended books in a certain category. Today’s category is books for ages 3-4. It’s more fun if others join in! Please, join in the comments with your favorite books for this age group, or better yet a link to your blog post where you list your favorites. Even if you don’t have a list of ten, I’d love to hear from you! The more the merrier!

The titles I’ve reviewed will link to the review, and the others will link to Amazon. Next week’s list will be for ages 4-5. Be thinking of your favorites!

Sondy’s Selections, Ages 3-4

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin, Jr, and John Archambault, illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Rollicking sounds and rhymes have the naughty little letters of the alphabet climbing up and falling down from the coconut tree. Irresistible rhythm!

Katie Loves the Kittens, by John Himmelman
Katie is a dog who loves the new little kittens but doesn’t know how to contain her enthusiasm for them. A great twist on welcoming new members of the family.

The Lion and the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney
This 2010 Caldecott Medal-winning picture book wordlessly tells the famous fable with lush pictures full of details your child will want to examine over and over again.

Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey
This much-loved classic has ducklings Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack following their mother through Boston to get to the Public Garden, with help from kind policemen stopping traffic.

Book! Book! Book! by Deborah Bruss, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke
The animals of the farm want something to do and go to the public library. But only the hen can get the librarian to understand what she wants.

The Three Pigs, by David Wiesner
This Caldecott Medal-winning book plays with the rules of illustration to show the three pigs escaping the wolf by fleeing from their book, and then visiting other books to find resources to build a happy ending.

Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag
This timeless classic tells of a very old woman and a very old man who want one little cat and find millions and billions and trillions of cats.

A Porcupine Named Fluffy, by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger
Poorly named Fluffy is angry when others laugh at his name – until he meets a rhino whose name is even less appropriate.

Serious Farm, by Tim Egan
Farmer Fred is too serious. The animals on his farm try to make him laugh, and don’t succeed until something happens that’s very serious to them. This book will succeed right away at making the reader laugh, child or adult.

Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
A farmer goes to greater and greater lengths to keep bunnies out of his garden. Each time the bunnies get in, there’s a refrain ending with Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!

In My Mailbox #3

It’s time for In My Mailbox! I’m finding this a fun excuse to talk about the books I just checked out. Though I may eventually subside with embarrassment as people find out how many books I actually check out but don’t get read and how far behind I am on writing reviews! This having a full-time job cuts down on blogging time, I’m afraid!

In My Mailbox is hosted by The Story Siren.

This week, the first batch of books I checked out is here:

Picture books: Zero, and The Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark
Nonfiction: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Children’s Fiction: The Kneebone Boy, by Ellen Potter
Teen Fiction: The Amaranth Enchantment, by Julie Berry
Adult Fiction: Miss Hargreaves, by Frank Baker

Since I only review picture books I’m super excited about, I ended up turning those two back in unreviewed.

The next batch of books checked out:

Here we have:
Picture Books: Zen Ghosts, by Jon Muth, and Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick
Teen Fiction: A Wizard of Mars, by Diane Duane
Children’s Fiction: A Whole Nother Story, by Dr. Cuthbert Soup

Then on Saturday I went to the Zen of YA Literature Conference, where Catherine Gilbert Murdock was speaking. I purchased copies of Front and Center and Princess Ben, and got them signed.

Oh, I also checked out three audiobooks, and am listening to the first one: Carpe Diem.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned, but ever since I came home from ALA with an overabundance of review copies, I have started trying to discipline myself to alternate my fiction reading between a library book and a book I own. So this week I finished the library book Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld, and then read the book I own, Enchanted Ivy, by Sarah Beth Durst. Both were excellent, and Enchanted Ivy especially so! Reviews will be coming — some day! I also finished the audiobook Flipped, by Wendelin Van Draanen. It was very good, but I didn’t want it to end where it did.

This week I got one review posted and one review written.

It doesn’t take a math major to figure out that I am just getting further behind! My current score is I now have 31 books I have read and would like to review, and 16 books that I have written a review for, which need to be posted.

But at least I’m having fun!

Review of Ladybug Girl at the Beach, by David Soman and Jacky Davis

Ladybug Girl at the Beach

by David Soman and Jacky Davis

Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin), 2010. 36 pages.
Starred Review

A big thank-you to Betsy Bird for calling my attention to this book on her Fuse #8 blog.

This is another favorite of the year so far for me — another one with such wonderful illustrations, I hope it gets some Caldecott attention.

Lulu has already made an appearance in Ladybug Girl, and today her family is going to the beach. She has a ladybug swimsuit, complete with wings and antennae.

Lulu is excited to come to the beach. But then (in a stunning two-page spread) she sees the big waves and thinks it’s a good day for just making sand castles. Her dog, Bingo is a steadfast companion through the whole book.

Of course sand castles don’t last all day. They fly a kite, get some ice cream…

The whole book feels so real. It brings me right back to my first few times at the beach. The first time she gets her feet wet:

“Suddenly a wave crashes into her legs and nearly knocks her over.

“Just as she gets her balance the whirling water races back and tries to pull her in. Her feet get buried in the sand up to her ankles.

” ‘Are you okay, Bingo?’ Lulu asks. She looks around to see if anyone noticed that they were almost carried away, but everyone is playing just as they were before.”

The pictures that accompany this section are perfect — first tentatively dipping a toe in the water, then bracing against the splash of a wave, then bracing the other way and trying to keep her balance as the water rushes out, leaving big swathes in the sand in front of their feet.

The whole book so beautifully catches Lulu’s mood — happy, a little scared, kind of tired, a little bored — and then, determined!

Lulu gets determined when she’s digging in the sand for pirate treasure and the tide comes in and tries to take away her favorite pail. That’s when she remembers that she is Ladybug Girl!

Ladybug Girl isn’t afraid of anything!

From then on, we see Ladybug Girl and Bingo playing happily in and out of the water.

“Ladybug Girl and Bingo play until the bright blue sky turns pink. They make footprints in the sand.
“At least 14 miles of them, Ladybug Girl thinks. Every time the ocean erases them, they make more.”

Reading this book will make you remember what it’s like to be a child at the seashore. And don’t let me stop urging you to take a look at this book yourself to see the exquisite watercolor paintings. They’re playful, they’re gorgeous, they’re joyful, and most of all the artist knows how to perfectly portray a little girl who still has a tummy and loves being Ladybug Girl. Beautiful!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books for Toddlers

It’s Top Ten Tuesday! Each week, I’m sharing my ten favorite recommendations in a given category. Last week, I listed books for babies, ages 0 to 2. This week, my list will be books for ages 2-3. I made the categories overlap so I could include more!

Again, I’ll provide links to my reviews if I’ve written one, and links to Amazon if not.

Top Ten Tuesday is more fun if others participate! Please leave a comment with your own favorite books for ages 2-3 or a link to your own blog post about it.

Next week, I’ll cover ages 3-4.

Sondy’s Selections, Ages 2-3

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems
Reading this book, the child gets to make the rules. The pigeon begs and pleads and throws a temper tantrum, but please don’t let him drive the bus!

Bark, George! by Jules Feiffer
When George tries to bark, the wrong animal sounds come out! George’s mother takes him to the vet, who finds animals inside George. Simple text gives excited anticipation as the animals get bigger and bigger.

Go, Dog. Go! by P. D. Eastman
This classic book explores colors and shapes, in and out, over and under, using dogs and cars and a big dog party at the end.
(Don’t get the board book – This is a book that should not be shortened!)

Pete’s a Pizza, by William Steig
This book is a fun excuse to play along as Pete’s father turns him into a pizza – with lots of tickling as he goes.

Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberley
In this book, a big green monster gradually appears, using cleverly shaped cuts in the pages. Then, the reader says, “Go away!” to each scary part until the end, “And don’t come back! Until I say so!”

Toot Toot Zoom! by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Fun sound effects abound throughout this story, as a red fox drives up a sky-high mountain and finds some friends.

Good Night, Gorilla, by Peggy Rathmann
The pictures tell the story in this book where the gorilla follows the night watchman around the zoo, unlocking the cages.

Oh, Daddy! by Bob Shea
The little hippo’s silly Daddy keeps getting everything wrong, so he has to show Daddy how to do simple tasks.

Little Quack, by Laurel Thompson, illustrated by Derek Anderson
Five little ducks, named Widdle, Waddle, Piddle, Puddle, and Little Quack are trying to get the courage to jump into the water behind their mother. Splish! Splash! Sploosh!

Llama Llama Red Pajama, by Anna Dewdney
A simple story with strong rhymes portraying night time worries calmed after Mama Llama doesn’t come back as fast as little Llama wishes.

PS: For even more fun, today, as if in honor of Top Ten Tuesday, the American Library Association announced the Teens’ Top Ten! Teens around the nation have voted on their favorite books written in 2009. Two of the books were also favorites of mine: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins was the Number 1 choice, and Fire, by Kristin Cashore, was Number 9. Congratulations to all the winners!

So go pick up some great books for toddlers AND for teens!

In My Mailbox #2

Here’s another week’s look at what’s In My Mailbox. This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

This week, I did not actually receive any books in my mailbox. I did, however, check out plenty of books from the Fairfax County Public Library.

The books are:
The Library Doors, by Toni Buzzeo. I’d been wanting this book, to see if it would be a good one to use for library tours. Of course, I’m currently not in a position where I’m offering library tours, but maybe again some day….

Orangutans Are Ticklish, by Steve Grubman. Need I say more?

Front and Center, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. I finished her earlier books Dairy Queen and The Off Season in audiobook form, and I can’t wait for the audiobook to find out what happens next! Besides, next week I get to hear the author speak at the MAYALIG conference!

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, by Julia Stuart. This is a book for adults for which I read a good review. Last time I checked it out, I had to return it unread.

The Magical Ms. Plum, by Bonny Becker. I love Bonny Becker’s books about Bear and Mouse. Surely this will be good, too.

Not pictured, I also checked out Touch Blue, by Cynthia Lord, based on a good review.

I didn’t read this many books this week. Of the books pictured last week, I had to return Reckless unread. I did, however, stay up all night last Sunday night reading Coronets and Steel, by Sherwood Smith, and thoroughly enjoyed it. (Monday was a holiday, so I went to sleep after I finished the book. It wasn’t a smart way to do it, but it was fun.)

I made a policy after getting back from ALA with 124 new books. From now on, I will read one library book, then one book I own. Coronets and Steel was a book I own, so next I read a library book: I have almost finished Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld. Next I would like to tackle some of the review copies I’ve received, but I may finally tackle Wuthering Heights, as I was prompted to by reading Clare Dunkle’s The House of Dead Maids.

This week I also finally finished Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, from my nonfiction pile. I go through nonfiction chapter by chapter in a rotating pile, so it tends to take me a long time. I’ve been reading that excellent book for a very long time and finding it inspirational.

I’m actually trying to slow down my reading a little bit, because I currently have 28 books I have read and want to write reviews for, and 15 books I have written reviews for and want to post. I did get more written this week than the number of books I finished, so that means I made progress, right?

Hmm. This may get discouraging reporting on how many books I check out and how slowly I’m getting them reviewed! I’ll try it a little longer and see if I make progress….

Review of The Double Comfort Safari Club, by Alexander McCall Smith

The Double Comfort Safari Club

by Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon Books, New York, 2010. 211 pages.
Starred Review

This is now the eleventh installment of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Though I think it would be an enjoyable book as a stand-alone, I still recommend that people start at the beginning, and they will be all the more touched by these developments in the lives of old friends.

In The Double Comfort Safari Club, we again have a nice tangle of cases for Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s premiere detective, to solve. One of them necessitates that she and Mma Makutsi take a business trip to a safari camp, which is where the book gets its name. (I love the titles in this series!)
As usual, the solutions to the mysteries don’t really involve intellectual puzzles, as in traditional detective tales. These are more a chance for Mma Ramotswe and her friends to reflect on human nature and draw wise conclusions about life.

In this book, a terrible accident happens to Phuti Radiphuti, and his aunt tries to use it as an opportunity to keep him from Mma Makutsi. The reader’s heart will be touched, but be glad that she has friends like Precious Ramotswe to find a way to help in a bad situation.

As always, reading this book is like spending time with wise and kind friends. And the variety of cases keep things interesting. Always fun.

“Mma Ramotswe thought about this. Having the right approach to life was a great gift in this life. Her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, had always had the right approach to life — she was sure of that. And for a moment, as she sat there with her friend, with the late-afternoon sun slanting in through the window, she thought about how she owed her father so much. He had taught her almost everything she knew about how to lead a good life, and the lessons she had learned from him were as fresh today as they had ever been. Do not complain about your life. Do not blame others for things that you have brought upon yourself. Be content with who you are and where you are, and do whatever you can do to bring to others such contentment, and joy, and understanding that you have managed to find yourself.

“She closed her eyes. You can do that in the company of an old friend — you can close your eyes and think of the land that gave you life and breath, and of all the reasons why you are glad that you are there, with the people you know, with the people you love.”

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Author Interview: Clare Dunkle Blog Tour, The House of Dead Maids

I’m so excited! Clare B. Dunkle is visiting my blog as part of her Blog Tour in honor of her new book, The House of Dead Maids. And be sure to go all the way down to the end of the post for an awesome Giveaway!

Here’s a link to my review of The House of Dead Maids. And below is our interview. I think you will find that Clare’s answers to my questions will make you eager to read the book!

I’m so pleased to have you visit my blog for my first ever author interview! I think of you as a friend, since we met up a few times when we both lived in Germany, after I posted on your blog how much I loved The Hollow Kingdom. I’ve loved your other books over the years, too, so when I saw an Advanced Reader Copy of The House of Dead Maids at ALA in June, I snapped it up.

I’ll go a little off-topic for my first question. You lived in Germany 7 years and I lived there 10 years. What was your favorite thing about living in Germany?

I think of you as a friend too, Sondy! As I recall, you attended my very first book signing. (I also recall that the bookstore somehow didn’t manage to have any copies of my book on hand—that put quite a damper on the happiness of the occasion.)

What was my favorite thing about living in Germany? Oh, there were so many! But best of all was the ability to travel a short distance and see picturesque and ancient things, like the Porta Nigra, just forty minutes from our doorstep, which the Romans had built eighteen hundred years ago.

(Fun! That’s almost exactly the same answer I would give to that question!)

One thing I love about your books is that they feel so much like historical fiction, it makes the reader believe these events really happened, including the fantastical ones. I don’t normally like ghost stories, but The House of Dead Maids felt so much like reading Jane Eyre, the ghosts just seemed like a natural part of the story. Tell us about the research you did for this book, and to get the voice just right (which you did!).

This manuscript came along at a very rough time in my life—real trouble in my family. I didn’t like to leave home much. I couldn’t even read cheerful books. But I did feel safe spending time with the Brontës because I knew they hadn’t had a perfect family, either, so I turned my attention to Wuthering Heights.

Now, you know how much trouble we had overseas getting our hands on the right research books. Our little base library could get materials only if they were held by another U.S. military base. But by sheerest good chance, I learned that we have a U.S. base in Yorkshire, and from that base I was able to get all kinds of fascinating research books: picture books about the Brontës, collections of Yorkshire folklore, critical readings of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, volumes of Yorkshire history, even books about Yorkshire weather over the last several hundred years. I read them until Brontë and Yorkshire trivia just oozed out my pores. This gave me something to do other than hyperventilate (which is what I did whenever I stopped reading long enough to worry about my family). I was also reading books on pagan rituals at the time, and I reread Frazer’s Golden Bough, whose influence on my manuscript was considerable.

And of course we traveled to Yorkshire and got to visit all the right kinds of Elizabethan mansions and windswept moors. You can see pictures from that trip here on my website.

After I had a pretty good sense of my setting and of the ideas in my characters’ heads, I turned to the problem of narration. I tend to be one of those people who pick up accents without meaning to (and usually end up sounding pretty funny), so to prepare to write the narration, I read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall over and over to get the vocabulary and style down pat. I didn’t want to end up sounding like a Victorian; I wanted to end up sounding like a Brontë!

I’ve been reading your other blog tour posts, and one said that you began this book in 2005. Why is it being published so much later?

I finished the manuscript halfway through 2006, and it sold then, but I wound up having to buy this manuscript back from the publishing house that held it. I realized that it was misunderstood there and that if it got released, no one would ever hear a whisper about it.

So we got permission to shop it around again, and we took it to Holt, back to my beloved editor with whom I’d worked on the Hollow Kingdom Trilogy, and Holt bought it back for us. But then Holt had to make room for it on their calendar. It meant losing a couple of years.

I also understand that you have written a memoir with your daughter, and I believe you’ve also written library-related nonfiction. How is writing nonfiction different for you than writing fiction? How is your process different?

In fact, I did so much research on Wuthering Heights and on the Brontës that I wrote a ton of nonfiction connected with The House of Dead Maids. I found that I had a lot that I wanted to say about those subjects, and I didn’t want all that hard work to go to waste. You can find my essays about the Brontës on my website at this page. (The last time I printed all the Brontë stuff out, I think it came to about seventy pages, single-spaced.)

Writing this sort of research essay is like writing my library-related articles: it’s easier to do than writing fiction, but I have to marshal my facts first. I try to line up the facts I intend to cover and put the direct quotations I intend to use into the right order in my Word file. Then I try to write the text around those quotations. But in practice, that breaks down. I never seem to have every quotation I want in the right spot, so there’s a lot of breaking off and hunting up citations and quotations—big untidy piles of books with little Post-It flags sticking out of them, marked up printouts scattered around, that sort of thing.

Writing my daughter’s memoir has been different. That’s been more like writing fiction. It’s channeling characters, even if those characters are us. We’re going for emotional effect, of course, not dry facts. But the part of it that isn’t like writing anything I’ve done before, fiction or nonfiction, is the pain. You know that an author has to feel the pain of the characters in order for the reader to feel it too—now imagine writing your worst memories and nightmares down and being sure that you keep writing out all that pain. I won’t be sorry when revisions are over for this one.

Back when I talked to you in Germany, you didn’t read fiction while you were writing fiction. Has that changed? Read any good books lately?

I still tend to read more nonfiction than fiction, and my research tends to dictate my fiction list anyway. But I do read fiction nowadays, although I go on weird kicks. Earlier this year, I read as much Shirley Jackson as I could get my hands on, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Sundial have become two of my favorite books. But lately I’ve been reading sea tales.

Don’t tell Amazon this, but I use the Calibre program to produce mobi files out of full-text Google books (those that are in the public domain, that is). Then I can read them easily on my Kindle DX, which I just adore. The last book I read this way was H.G. Wells’ quirky little tale, The Sea Lady, and I also recently read William McFee’s Casuals of the Sea, a rambling story from the 1910’s that more people should know. And of course I’m reading Joseph Conrad. I appreciate him more now than I did when he was assigned in school. I’m fascinated by the contrast he reveals between the simple, straightforward life of a man at sea and the enormous complications of life in a foreign port. It’s obvious that this was the bane of Conrad’s existence when he was a seaman.

Being an ex-librarian, I like free stuff, so I can’t resist mentioning a favorite source of audio recordings: That’s a volunteer-only site for public domain books on tape. I download them in mp3 format and then play them on my phone or mp3 player while I’m working out. I’m currently listening to the second of the two Treasure Island recordings, the one done by Dr. Adrian Praetzellis of Sonoma University. He’s a splendid narrator! A professional actor couldn’t do better. You can find a complete list of his librivox readings here.

I see that your publicity photo was taken in Venice. Do you have plans to write a book set in Venice?

I loved Venice, and I thought seriously about writing a story set in Italy, but ultimately, I decided against it, at least for the time being. I’ve been fascinated this year by Shirley Jackson and her ability to make a bland, familiar setting feel eerie and unsafe. It’s that juxtaposition of the known and the unknown that leaves readers looking over their shoulders. So I decided against Italy. It’s too exotic. Any creeps readers got from reading about it wouldn’t stay with them when they closed the book.

I’ve never read Wuthering Heights, but when I talked to you before this interview, you said it would be okay to read this book first, since it is a prequel. You also said you hoped your book would win new readers for Wuthering Heights, and I want to tell you that for this reader at least, you completely succeeded! I want to find out how these things play out in Heathcliff’s life!

Fantastic! That’s exactly why I wrote The House of Dead Maids. I hope you enjoy Wuthering Heights. Those first three chapters are so full of dark surprises and so splendidly written that I envy you getting to read them for the first time. Then you can consult my webpages about the book’s mysteries and motifs and see if you agree with what I’ve written there.

Clare, thanks so much for visiting my blog!

It was my pleasure. You were there at my first signing—now I’m here at your first author interview. Here’s to many more of both!

Readers, be sure to catch her next stop at! And meanwhile, here’s a fantastic giveaway in conjunction with the blog tour!

Special Brontë-themed giveaway!

One Grand Prize winner will receive The House of Dead Maids, a gorgeous Brontë sisters pocket mirror, and the HarperTeen edition of Wuthering Heights! Two lucky runners-up will receive the two books. To enter, send an email to with your name, email address, and shipping address (if you’re under 13, submit a parent’s name and email address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on October 31. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on November 1 and notified via email.

Review of House of Dead Maids, by Clare B. Dunkle

House of Dead Maids

by Clare B. Dunkle

Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2010. 146 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve never liked ghost stories. Too much imagination, I think. So I wasn’t planning to pick up this particular Advanced Review Copy at ALA Annual Conference — until I saw the author’s name, and then I snatched it up.

I consider Clare Dunkle a friend. We met when we both lived in Germany, after I raved about her first book, The Hollow Kingdom, on my blog right before she was doing a book signing at the local BX. We met up a few times after that, and I got to know her and like her. And her books continue to be fabulous. Here are my reviews of Close Kin, In the Coils of the Snake, By These Ten Bones, and The Sky Inside.

I still put off reading it, since the creepy cover freaked me out. (Though I’m sure it will entice many teen readers who come to the library looking for “scary” books.) But then I learned that Clare was doing a Blog Tour and asked her to include my site. So on October 14, 2010, I’m posting my first Author Interview! Her answers to my questions turned out to be fascinating, so I’m excited about it.

I read the book surrounded by people on a jet with my reading light firmly ON. I was coming back from the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium in Boston. I had decided against reading it alone in my hotel room in a strange city! That was a good choice, because the book is definitely creepy. But it’s intriguing, and definitely got me hooked.

The House of Dead Maids is a prequel to Wuthering Heights. Now, believe it or not, I’ve never read Wuthering Heights. I had meant to, and even bought a paperback copy. I think I decided not to after all when my German landlady mentioned that she had to read it in her English class, and she thought it was awful. She asked why anyone would want to read such a horrible story. So I put it a little further on the back burner.

Clare assured me that I could read The House of Dead Maids before reading Wuthering Heights, and she’d expressed that she was hoping her book would get more readers for the classic novel. I do intend to finally read Wuthering Heights now and see what I think. I did read Jane Eyre long ago and completely fell in love with it. Reading The House of Dead Maids, Clare Dunkle completely succeeded in creating a voice that reminded me of Jane Eyre. She says she was trying to write like the Brontes, and I think she did. The voice pulled me into that world and that kind of mindset.

As always, Clare’s writing feels like it was actually written at the time — which makes you believe all the more that the supernatural happenings “really” happened. In this case, she wove in superstitions and rituals of the time for a terribly creepy tale.

Tabby Ackroyd is the narrator, an orphan taken to serve at a creepy mansion. She is given charge of a wild young boy who claims to be master of the house. Tabby doesn’t know what happened to the orphan who went there to serve before her. But then she sees ghosts all over the house and grounds. It turns out they were both brought there for a sinister purpose.

I like the way Tabby Ackroyd turns out to be the housekeeper of the Bronte sisters. I found it quite plausible that she told the girls, who loved ghost stories, this tale of a wild boy who wanted to be master. It was left for them to tell what became of him….

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Source: This review is based on an Advance Reader’s Edition picked up at ALA.