"review" · Children's · horror/scary · Picture book · recommend · wondermous

laszlo and the dark

30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay Nineteen: The Dark

by Lemony Snicket, illus by Jon Klassen

Little, Brown & Co. 2013.

When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.–Nietzsche


“Laszlo is afraid of the dark. The dark is not afraid of Laszlo.”*

Seriously, how chilling is that? And I didn’t even have to use the Vincent Price voice to excite goosebumps.

“Laszlo lives in a house. The dark lives in the basement.”*

If only it would stay there. But of course, it won’t, because we’d rather be frightened than bored.

“One night, the dark comes upstairs to Laszlo’s room, and Laszlo goes down to the basement.”*

The hunter has just become the hunted–okay, so not really. It’s more like Laszlo is being carried off to his doom.

“This is the story of how Laszlo stops being afraid of the dark.”*

The *jacket copy reads like dark chocolate. Too bad the daughter is thirteen and not three, because this could have been really fun to read together. She wasn’t as macabre when she was three–as macabre.

Imagining the dark as this living breathing thing that lurks is lovely.  It  is Laszlo’s fellow inmate of a big sparsely furnished house. And it speaks. This sort of schizophrenia not only plausible, but acceptable in picture books. Of course, Laszlo speaks to the dark first.

dark3 (1)

“Laszlo would peek at the dark every morning [which always retreats to the basement by then]. ‘Hi,’ he would say. ‘Hi, dark.'”

It’s cute, because Laszlo acts as if the dark comes to visit him because he wouldn’t visit it’s room; as if the dark were lonely, instead of each of them minding in-house boundaries. Which they are. But maybe, too, the dark is only trying to be just as thoughtful when it visits Laszlo. After all, who else seems to know what you are looking for when all the room goes dark–which is what happens before the dark’s voice lures Laszlo from his bed.


And really, how can you enjoy the light without the dark? The question of one needing the other for something is a clever way to go in this picture book about being afraid. Laszlo’s fears needed the dark, until he doesn’t any longer. Until he needs the dark [in order] to have light.

Klassen’s illustrations add a significant coherence to the story. The illuminated spaces are carved out by the dark. Even the text can be read because of the dark, because we are reading in the dark… The dark gives things shape just as the light in the more lit spaces emphasize shadow.

“Mr. Klassen’s genius is entirely accidental. He has no idea what he’s doing. Often he does something good, but it’s purely by chance.” Daniel Handler in a Kirkus interview. There is something to a well-honed instinct and Klassen’s previous works recommend him a gift for timing and placement and color values. Handler is quite good with his sense of story as well.


The Dark is something you are going to want to experience for yourself.


read Jenny Brown’s amusing interview for Kirkus here, in which she actually asks Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) “Would you say that, over time, you have become more compassionate?”

{images belong to Jon Klassen}

"review" · fiction · horror/scary · Illustrator · juvenile lit · recommend · Tales · Uncategorized

{book} 9 Reasons to read The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield

9 lives The-Nine-Lives-of-Alexander-BaddenfieldThe 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield

by John Bemelmans Marciano

illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Viking (Penguin) 2013.

9 Reasons to Read The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield

#1  The Premise:

Alexander Baddenfield is a horrible boy—a really horrible boy—who is the last in a long line of lying, thieving scoundrels.  One day, Alexander has an astonishing idea.  Why not transplant the nine lives from his cat into himself?  Suddenly, Alexander has lives to spare, and goes about using them up, attempting the most outrageous feats he can imagine.  Only when his lives start running out, and he is left with only one just like everyone else, does he realize how reckless he has been. (publisher’s comments)

I felt sure that between the jacket copy and the illustrator, I was going to like this one. It was going to be deliciously dark and, thus, right up my alley. [#2 It is deliciously dark, by the way.] While there was some concern that the clever narrator would be a bit too much, I knew I would love this read after page 2. The reason why:

“But now you say to yourself, “Aha! I know: The twist is that the boy is not really dead. It says it right there in the title–Alexander has nine lives. he will be reborn, again and again, so that by his ninth life this awful child will have learned his lesson. His heart will fill with love for his fellow man, and he will become a Not-So-Baddenfield, or even a Goodenfield, and he will turn all his money over to the poor and dedicate his final life to charitable good works.

“If this were a  Hollywood movie, or a fairy tale, or a run-of-the-mill chapter book, this would undoubtedly be the case. But in the real world such things rarely happen. The truth of the matter is that Alexander Baddenfield used up all nine of his lives without the least bit of remorse or redemption, because Alexander Baddenfield only ever cared about one thing: himself.” (2-3)

John Bemelmans Marciano earns major points with me for consistency of character.

#3  Like his Baddenfield men before him, will die “in particularly grisly and poetically justified ways” (8). The tricky thing about the book, of course, is: how to kill of a child character and still maintain the resulting exclamation: what an entertaining book! I’m still laughing about _____! [I could be heard saying these things as I was encouraging Natalya to take a break from Virgin Suicides to give it a go.] It doesn’t hurt that Alexander is really and truly horrible. Two, there are quite a few fantastical elements. Three, if Edward Gorey can do it…

9 lives tumblr_mtdo49ZDT91r0yglfo1_250

Marciano was evidently up to the challenge. And in case, you aren’t a reader of Grimm or Gorey, the author offers a disclaimer, a dare and a tantalizer:

“Warning to All Readers : You are about to embark on a tale that recounts the sometimes gruesome deaths of a young boy, and his not always pleasant rebirths. If you are squeamish, sentimental, or faint of heart, I suggest that you turn back now. You have hopefully enjoyed the story so far. Why not quiet while you are ahead?”

It is nicely done, a black page and a skull and cross bones. #4 His sense of humor is spot-on for this sort of storytelling.

#5 The 9 Lives is as much about Winterbottom as it is about Alexander. A Winterbottom has served a Baddenfield “since time immemorial” (2), and how does one suffer such horrible human beings; further, how does one stick around to watch him self-destruct x9? Here is the heart that functions as the foil to Alexander’s heartlessness. Here is the helicopter parent to Alexander’s extreme risk-taking. What I can’t say is: Here is the perfection to Alexander’s imperfection–and I am glad to be unable to say it.

9 lives stroller.final

#6 Sophie Blackall’s illustrations. You know by now that I am a fan of Blackall’s work, but I wasn’t sure about the sweetened edge to her illustrations would do in a book full of horribleness. The rounded over sharp, skritched carvings of characters lend a deceptive sweetness that makes a glaring Alexander all the more awful…and humorous. Blackall’s charming illustrations make the macabre turns surprisingly all the more disturbing.

#7 Mention of Thomas Pynchon on page 36. another reason why juvenile fiction can be enjoyed by the well-read grown-ups in the family.

#8 The book itself is having fun. Besides the great illustrations and entertaining narrator, the text is manipulated and lives are counted down via eyeballs. Chapters are as long as they need to be, and the re-write of history in chapter two is perfectly paced and hilariously re-imagined (my favorite may be the Boston Tea Party); and such is what you can expect in following chapters–unexpected takes that are highly comedic.

#9 “The End” wherein the narrative shifts, and we get two amusing pages of text before that closing full-page illustration. It is a truly delightful ending to a marvelously entertaining book!

{images belong to Sophie Blackall}

"review" · Children's · fiction · horror/scary · Picture book · recommend

when snacks turn deliciously sinister

30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay Eleven: Creepy Carrots!

by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown

Simon & Schuster, 2012.

creepy carrots coverJasper Rabbit loves carrots. and he can take the fattest, crispiest carrots from Crackenhopper Field anytime he wants. that is, until they start following him home… (jacket copy)

Is Jasper imagining creepy carrots creeping about, sneaking up behind him in the bathroom mirror or across the bedroom floor. He is seeing them everywhere! The only reason to question this is because there are plausible explanations for what he could actually be seeing. Perhaps too much of a good thing (ala gluttony or general excess) could lead to some wild hallucinations (read manifestations of guilt). Nah!

Creepy Carrots! is: psychological thriller meets sweet little children’s picture book. It is exciting! When your imagination turns on you…or your vegetables.

creepy carrots interior 3left

The opening end-page is something to consider pausing on, the rows of carrots interspersed with the creepy. This image is recalled as Jasper before a darkened woods, happy amongst his field of carrots. The creepy carrots were there all along, hiding in the field.

The old-school B-rated horror touch to the illustrations is a lot of fun, and, of course, perfectly suited. The orange is vibrant against a filtered black and white, drawing the eye and fueling Jasper’s paranoia. The punctuation of the text guides the reader into a dramatic rendition for the listener (self or other). A Hitchcockian Vertigo-esque illustration marks the mental break. Jasper’s solution to his problem is extensive, but warranted. The moat with gators is genius.


Creepy Carrots! is thrilling…and best unaccompanied by a serving of carrots, or really any vegetable; because the ending? It’s pretty creepy, too!

pair this one with The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005); as if you should require an excuse to watch anything Wallace and Gromit.

{images belong to Peter Brown}

discovered this book (and the cool video) last year thanks to Shelf Elf, see her review.

"review" · cinema · foreign · horror/scary · mystery · recommend · wondermous

{television} broadchurch

A small contingent in the ITV (UK) crime-drama television series Broadchurch worry about how the recent murder of a child is going to affect the tourism. And they have good cause to worry, because after Broadchurch, the sinister possibilities in their seaside village is enough to put me off vacating to any quaint coastal resort.

Broadchurch is chilling.


11-year-old Danny Latimer’s (Oskar McNamara) body is found on the beach. This is the first case for Detective Inspector (DI) Alec Hardy (David Tennant, Doctor Who) in Broadchurch, but certainly not his first case dealing with child-murders. The last one will haunt his story-line. At his side is the woman whose job he nabs from under her, Detective Sergeant (DS) Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman, Hot Fuzz). She has never dealt with a case of this magnitude, but she does know the town. The victim’s mother is a best friend. It is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else, and little goes unwitnessed.

How could you not know?! is a frequent refrain in Broadchurch. But people are good at keeping secrets and looking the other way, including the children. People are just as good at jumping to conclusions, content with not knowing the whole story. But of course, no one is content with letting Danny lay. Especially since the child-killer surely must abide among them.


Broadchurch is a classic who-dunnit. Secrets begin to surface and suspicious characters are slow to be eliminated as potential murderers. The series successfully sustains episode after episode of damning activities until that shocking revelation in the 8th and final piece.  The sub-plots help. The parents are not only dealing with the loss of their son, but the betrayals emerging about them. The community as a whole is reeling and how might the local vicar Reverent Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill Doctor Who) help. A local newspaperman is eager to get out and work for major papers and this may be his chance. The hungry reporter from the city provides the foil. DS Miller is forced to distance herself and become the observer she needs to become for the sake of solving the case—a struggle as she is deeply embedded in this community.  DI Hardy’s health is a serious concern, as is the outcome of his past case. He is the gruff and experienced outsider who views this case and its village as a penance he must see through to its close.

broadchurch tennant colman

The anguish and disgust is palpable in this series brimming with a talented cast. David Tennant is outstanding. Olivia Colman is gorgeous in her role. The camera-work is beautiful: those cuts to the placid expanse of water, the color, the dark. The dialog is tight, the story plotted and carried through in such a way as to leave one giddy after its execution.

The subject matter is the thing that makes a “must see” tentative. I’ve a professor who couldn’t make it past the second episode… It’s the child. And really, the ugliness of the world only expands, spiraling outward from around this center. It is all gloriously played, with some thought-provoking dilemmas to unwind once you recover from that stunning and heartbreaking conclusion.

Broadchurch is a must!

…if you love David Tennant, dark mysteries (drama), and/or having your suspicions of small town life confirmed.

–there is to be a second season. I can only imagine what that will mean. but I will be watching for its return.

–there is to be an adaptation of the series for FOX w/ Tennant to star in his same role; can’t say that excites me.


Broadchurch (season 1), creator/writer/executive producer: Chris Chibnall, Directors James Strong & Euros Lyn. Cinematography Matt Gray. series music: Olafur Arnalds. executive producer Jane Featherstone. producer Richard Stokes. starring: David Tennant (DI Alec Hardy), Olivia Colman (DS Ellie Miller), Jodie Whittaker (Beth Latimer), Andrew Buchan (Mark Latimer), Arthur Darvill (Rev. Paul Coates), David Bradley (Jack Marshall), Pauline Quirke (Susan Wright) and Vicky McClure (Karen White).

"review" · Children's · horror/scary · Illustrator · Picture book · recommend · Tales

the dangerous alphabet

30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay Four: The Dangerous Alphabet

written by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Gris Grimly

HarperCollins, 2008.

TheDangerousAlphabet_Hardcover_1210447336I’m not sure how the rule works, but surely there must be so many alphabet books per so many Picture Books. I am going to share at least two. You’re welcome. Every child should become expert on the alphabet and expanding their lexicon is just as important (e.g. “E is for evil,” “V is for vile,” “H is for ‘Help me!’) . Of course, The Dangerous Alphabet includes a warning that reads: “The alphabet, as given in this publication, is not to be relied upon and has a dangerous flaw that an eagle-eyed reader may be able to discern.” Even so, they make the 26 lines of rhyme exciting to the most reluctant early reader–educationally speaking, because that is what these alphabet books are for, right? …


page one: an introduction: and the reason you either will or will not get this book:

“A piratical ghost story in thirteen ingenious but potentially disturbing rhyming couplets, originally conceived as a confection both to amuse and to entertain by Mr. Neil Gaiman, scrivener, and then doodled, elaborated upon, illustrated, and beaten soundly by Mr. Gris Grimly, etcher and illuminator, featuring two brave children, their diminutive but no less courageous gazelle, and a large number of extremely dangerous trolls, monsters, bugbears, creatures, and other such nastinesses, many of which have perfectly disgusting eating habits and ought not, under any circumstances, to be encouraged.”


recommendations:  After your child has graduated from this one. Be sure to have a handy copy of Edward Gorey’s The Gashly Crumb Tinies (my review) on hand for their middle-school review of the alphabet…

{images belong to Gris Grimly..whose Edgar Allen Poe books are not to be missed}

"review" · fiction · horror/scary · juvenile lit · recommend · series

{book} gustav gloom and the people taker

gustav peopletaker coverGustav Gloom and The People Taker (bk1)

by Adam-Troy Castro

Illustrated by Kristen Margiotta

Grosset & Dunlap (Penguin) 2012.

hardcover, 226 pages.

Gustav Gloom’s neighbors think he is the unhappiest little boy in the world. But what they don’t know is that the strange, dark house Gustav lives in is filled with more wonders and mysteries than could ever be explained. But explain is exactly what Gustav needs to do when Fernie What moves in across the street. And that’s when the adventure really begins…

When her cat chases his own shadow into the Gloom mansion, not only does Fernie get lost in Gustav’s house full of shadows, but she also finds herself being chased by the mysterious People Taker. With Gustav’s help, Fernie must save herself, her cat, and ultimately her family from what lurks in the Gloom mansion.  (back cover copy)

It wasn’t long into the novel that I got a sense of the Burton-esque, but it may be that I have watched Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton 1990) recently. It wasn’t that the narrator was channeling Vincent Price for me. It was the suburban neighborhood with a “fluorescent salmon house” across the street from a black, cloud- and fog-enshrouded castle, soon to be followed by Gustav Gloom’s unaffected replies to Fernie’s questions, and how the only world that truly seemed inexplicable was Fernie’s own.

There is also a cuteness about the story (despite the deliciously sinister villain) that places it closer to Burton’s darkling tales than say Brothers Grimm or Chris Priestley. There is a lot of energy and silliness that nears the over-the-top mark; the sort that has one wondering if the narrator is just too giddy with its own cleverness and humor to notice the “delightful” has begun to outweigh “dark;” thus I arrive at cute. The illustrations also tip those scales a bit.

gustav gloom image 3

{“Chapter One: The Strange Fate of Mr. Notes”}

David Roberts (for Priestley’s Tales of Terror) in its Gorey-esque illustrations would have been too stark and baleful for Gustav Gloom, that or I’m fully convinced by Kristen Margiotta’s full page illustrations introducing each chapter. They are adorable, aren’t they? The Goodreads page quotes “beautifully dark.” It certainly prints on the page dark, but I think they are too cute to be “beautiful.” Nicoletta Ceccoli is beautifully dark. Margiotta’s work carries off the kind of sweetness the book is offering a young audience; there is just enough seasoning of sinister to thrill a young reader.

gustav gloom image{“Chapter Ten: The Gallery of Awkward Statues”}

Before long it revealed itself as a sculpture—and not just any sculpture, but one of those massive, looming, white marble sculptures of a heroic-looking, muscle-bound man. Fernie had seen a number of sculptures like that in museums and in movies set in museums, and had always been impressed by the way the figures in the sculptures were constantly doing noble things like waving swords or standing at podiums making speeches or holding the Earth over their heads.

This one, though, didn’t look nearly as important.

The statue depicted a man, as muscle-bound as a mythical hero, stooping to examine the sole of his right foot to see whether he’d stepped in something.

It was such a realistic marble sculpture that Fernie could tell that he had. It wasn’t just that it looked gooshy and smeary, but his stone face was also contorted with disgust at the smell.

“Ewww,” said Fernie, pleased.

“It’s one of my favorites,” Gustav agreed. (122-3)

So the narrator reads a bit hyper at times for me, and I would roll my eyes at seeming digressions but they rather cleverly pass the time and flesh out the characters while the author is able to retain the scale and grandeur of Gloom’s house. And it is fantastic—the house. The imagination is incredibly entertaining. Castro is really good with the action sequences. And the exploration of “shadow” is stellar: how does one work, are there some good metaphors, like:

“The way Great-Aunt Mellifluous once explained it to me is that people who spend their entire lives sitting around never doing anything become shadows of what they could have been, so they deserve a room here as much as anybody.” (148)

gustav gloom image 2

{Chapter Three: The Odd Tale of Mrs. Adele Everwiner and the Rude Cashier}

Second only to the imagination of both the Gloom house and the safety hazards/procedures, Castro imagines some superb characters. The villain is awesomely bad. The beast is something we learn to laugh at–eventually. The children are smart and daring and are, in what is ultimately a friendship story, the kind of people the reader will want to be and know. The adults can be pretty silly, if even a little frustrating. I mean, who are these people and why do they wield so much power over children? Fernie and Pearlie’s dad has to be the most helicopter-y parent realized in kid-lit—but in an affectionate way. (His wife would be the most hands off.) He is also subject of one of the most amusing punch-lines in the novel (I won’t spoil it). Of the non-shadow adult figures in the Gustav Gloom, he is the one genuinely cares. The others are fairly grotesque. Older readers will read the social commentary, young readers will just find resonance, laughter (a really good coping mechanism), and the sort of optimism a good story of friendship set in adventure can provide.

As Gustav Gloom proceeds we learn more about our protagonists Fernie and Gustav, (not that the secondary characters remain flat by any means), but both carry loads of personality and loads of back story—especially Gustav. Just who is this boy and how did he come to be in his situation, tethered to the gated lawn and house within? Needless to say, Book One sets up plenty of tantalizing material for series. Go ahead a make sure you have book 2 on hand, Gustav Gloom and The Nightmare Vault (April 2013); the 3rd book The Four Terrors looks like it is set to release mid-August 2013.


Recommendations:  ages 8-11, boys & girls. for readers who like their houses to have crazy imaginations and a bit of silliness; and who can appreciate enough humor and childhood antics to blunt the sinister edge a bit. This is a good one, too, for parents to read along with, to enjoy together: maybe for Carl’s R.eader’s I.mbibing P.eril challenge in the Fall? or these long summer evenings. Plan to finish it off with a pancake dinner or chocolate chip cookies (or both?).

Of note: Early on, I kept thinking, a picture book by Castro could be interesting. Too, the final portrait of Gustav confirmed a suspicion that was forming: he could related to the Culkin boys (Macaulay & Kiernan).

{images belong to Kristen Margiotta, check out her site and be sure to peruse her illustrations and paintings, especially if you like what you see here; she is certainly familiar with figures of horror, fairy tales, & the macabre}

"review" · concenter · fiction · horror/scary · Lit · mystery · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy

{book} the between

the between coverThe Between by Tananarive Due

Harper Perennial (HarperCollins) 1995

Tradepaper, 274 pages.

When Hilton was just a boy, his aged grandmother saved him from drowning by pulling him out of a treacherous ocean current, sacrificing her life for his. Now, thirty years later, Hilton begins to think his borrowed time is running out. His wife, the only elected African-American judge in Dade County, Florida, has begun receiving racist hate mail from a man she once prosecuted, and Hilton’s sleep is plagued by nightmares more horrible than any he has ever experienced.
As he battles both the psychotic stalking of his family and the unseen enemy that haunts his sleep, Hilton’s sense of reality is slipping away. Shocking and utterly convincing, “The Between” is a novel about a man desperately trying to hold on to the people and life he loves but may have already lost, and it holds readers suspended between the real and the surreal until the final moment of chilling resolution.—jacket copy

“Hilton was seven when his grandmother died, and it was a bad time. But it was worse when she died again.” From that very lovely opening, Tananarive Due crafts a pulse-thrumming tale of a man haunted by a “sinister fear” (45). The rhythmic quality of the writing draws Hilton’s consciousness from the page and his own increasingly confused sense of reality becomes the reader’s own. Italicized moments seep into the text between paragraphs, between “lucid” moments, into sentence ends. Some stretches exchange italics for the non-dreaming, non-subconscious spaces of non-stressed print. Are we experiencing mental illness or magical realism, or some semblance of both in that the human perceptions of reality holds a blurring, and moments of between, of dreaming…

In the Prologue, Due describes a young Hilton’s slip beneath the surface of the ocean, a teasing current pulling at his ankles, but soon, the playful becomes gripping as it seizes him in earnest (6), and such is the experience of the novel. The story begins as a delightful tinge of uncertainty only to smoothly shift in a breathless turning pages. The Between begs for some deeper cultural reads…and for a mature audience who understand the complicated emotions and relationships, as well as a deeper understanding of what would cause a man to fracture and to fight.



I’ve never read a Tananarive Due novel, and if this liquid lovely was her debut, you can bet I will be seeking out more by her. Another wonderful find via the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge; I am two for two.