Hello folks. It’s been a bit. I am now teaching in one of the preschool classrooms at CMS while one of the regular teachers is out for a while. It’s three adults vs twenty-nine 3-6 year olds. I have no idea how the regular teachers do it. I’m whipped every night.
So, I haven’t been finishing new books as fast as I’d like, but I did come by an extra copy of Castle Hangnail by the irrepressible Ursula Vernon. So, I thought I’d give it away.
To enter the giveaway just comment down below with what you would do with a real castle of your very own.
I’ll use a random number generator to pick a winner on June 30.
My MPS/Tor/Forge sales rep came by this week, so I have a huge pile of new toys!
Dragon Heart by Cecelia Holland
A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe
Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
Updraft by Fran Wilde
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
The Sleeping King by Cindy Dees & Bill Flippin
The Boy Who Knew Everything by Victoria Forester
A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStafano
The August 5 by Jenna Helland
The Day the Mustache Took Over by Alan Katz
The Golden Match by E. D. Baker
Calvin by Martine Leavitt
Ursula is interesting because she does several contradictory things. She is probably most well known as the author of the Dragonbreath series, which is a middle grade, graphic intensive series. She has a brand new YA book called Castle Hangnail, and another graphic book coming out in August called Hamster Princess.(I got to read an ARC of it already, and it’s great!)
So, that is Ursula Vernon the children’s book author. But there is also Ursula Vernon that adult writer (writing under the pseudonym T. Kingfisher). These are not for kids! They are, however, pretty awesome. Many of these stories are spun out of the darker versions of fairytales or D&D games.
Then there is Ursula Vernon, Hugo Award winning comics writer/artist. Digger won the 2012 Hugo for best graphic story. The complete Digger omnibus weighs in at 823 pages. Digger is a wombat with attitude who finds herself in a very strange world indeed. If you can’t quite cope with an 823 page omnibus, Digger is available in six volumes from Sofawolf Press, or you can read it in its original webcomic format. (By the way, sofawolves are what the owners of the press call their huskies. I have decided that is the best thing ever and have begun to address my husky as such.)
Then, there is Ursula Vernon, podcaster. She and her husband have a podcast called Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap. As Kevin announces at the beginning of each podcast, this is not for kids. This podcast may not be for young adults. Or most adults. There is language, and content, and two (or more) grown people eating some of the weirdest and worst foods they can find to inflict upon themselves. (At episode 200 they have to eat a can of silk worm pupae!). Alert listeners can, and do, mail in tasty treats for consumption on the podcast. And Ursula occasionally curses their names. (Only a little bit.)
So, these are the many facets of Ursula Vernon. I found her initially through work. We got a promo poster for the Dragonbreath series and I decided that this was my kind of thing. I put the poster up, ordered five copies of the first book and then promptly failed to ever read the series. (It’s on book 10 now. I’m a little behind!)
Then, I found Ursula again when I listened to an episode of the SF Squeecast and Elizabeth Bear recommended Digger. (That happened to be the same episode where Lynne M. Thomas recommended Delia’s Shadow.) So, I picked up Digger and put it on my shelf for a while, but who has time to start an 823 page comic?
Then, I came across Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap. It is hilarious. I tune in mostly for the byplay between Kevin and Ursula, but a little bit to see what sort of terrible thing they’re eating this week. And that reminded me that I had all these books by Ursula waiting for me. And so, I started down the path…
Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew is Ursula’s oldest children’s book. I ordered a copy in from our distributor and ripped though it in one night. Nurk is a small shrew who has a very nice house under a willow tree. When the mailman brings him a letter addressed to his grandmother, the great adventuress, Surka, Nurk finds that he has no choice but to answer the desperate plea for help. His grandmother has not been heard from in many seasons and there is no one else.
So, using a snail shell as a boat he heads downstream hoping to find the people who sent the plea for help.
He encounters rapids, dragonflies (which are not at all the sort of flying insect we’re familiar with,) and a giant blind mole who is holding the prince of the dragonflies hostage. It is a very difficult quest for a not very brave shrew, but Nurk and the snailboat persevere. After all, there is the question of miss-delivery of mail to clear up!
Dragonbreath – I finished nine of the ten Dragonbreath books this week. (I’m waiting on #9 to come back in at the bookstore.)
Danny Dragonbreath is a dragon living in a world of non-mythical reptiles and amphibians. No one, except his best friend Wendell, believes he is actually a dragon. This is a source of great consternation to Danny. Danny, meanwhile, is a great source of consternation to pretty much everyone around him. He gets into one impossible scrape after another. The fire department is on a first name basis with his parents, and Wendell is never going to be quite the same as Danny drags him from the Sargasso Sea to Mythical Japan on the worlds best bus system. Which, of course, only seems to work when Danny is riding it.
These books will take a quick reader maybe an hour or two to read, but they’re well worth the time.
Last month, Ursula’s YA novel came out. Castle Hangnail. What can I say about Castle Hangnail?
I love it so much. I got an ARC from my awesome Penguin rep. Then I bought a hard copy when it came out. Then I got the audiobook, so I have now read Castle Hangnail multiple times.
The actual castle from which the book draws its name is on the smallish side. And, sadly, not located in a forbidding landscape. In fact, the view from the front door often includes sunshine, flowers, and frisking sheep. This is a source of great distress to the minions.
Castle Hangnail is also, disastrously, without a master at the moment. If a new wicked witch, evil sorcerer, mad scientist, or undead lord does not present themselves soon the castle will be decommissioned and the minions split up to find gainful employment elsewhere.
Then Molly shows up to take up the position as wicked witch. Molly is not quite what they were expecting. For one thing, she’s twelve. She’s short. She has frizzy hair. But, she does have very good boots. And she can turn invisible when she holds her breath, which is undeniably magical. However, in order to take full possession of the castle and save it from being decommissioned she must complete a list of tasks sent by the Board of Magic:
1) Take possession of the castle and surrounding grounds.
2) Secure and defend the castle.
3) Commit at least one (1) act of smiting and three (3) acts of blighting.
4) Win the hearts and minds of the townsfolk by any means necessary.
If she fails in any of these the Board will take the castle.
The only problem… Molly isn’t supposed to be there at all. She has magic, but it’s never been trained. And she stole the invitation. But she really, really loves the castle, the minions, and everything about being a wicked witch. Only time will tell if that’s enough.
It’s so good, you guys. Did I mention that it was good? And you don’t have to believe me! i09 had a very flattering write-up about it. Castle Hangnail is great for its intended audience of 8-12 year olds, but it’s got a ton to recommend it to older readers as well. The audio would not be my recommended version; I’d pick up the print version instead. A) the narrator is a little old sounding to make the perfect Molly, although she’s very good in all other respects. And B) with the audio version you miss out on all of Ursula’s fantastic illustrations.
But, however you choose to pick this one up, I strongly urge you to go out and get it!
Finally, there is Hamster Princess.
Let me first warn you that Hamster Princess doesn’t come out until August. This is very sad for you as it is amazing. Feel free to pre-order it and give those release day sales a boost though!
Harriet is not a typical princess. She doesn’t like wearing fancy dresses or going to parties. And she’s 100% not interested in marrying a handsome prince. Or even an ok looking prince.
Unfortunately, her father forgot to invite the evil rat fairy to her christening and so Harriet is going to be cursed on her twelfth birthday. She will prick her finger on a hamster wheel and fall into a deep sleep. Forever!
There is nothing to be done. The curse will come true.
Harriet realizes that there is a loophole. For the curse to come true, she has to live until her twelfth birthday. Which means… she’s invincible!
She immediately sets out on her riding quail and makes a reputation for herself as the fiercest princess in all known lands. Monsters quake at her very name. But, all the fun and games has to end as her birthday approaches. Of course, Harriet isn’t a standard princess, so when the curse finally comes to call things get… wacky.
So, that is Ursula Vernon. You should go give her money. Which you can do by buying her books or becoming a patron at Patreon. This helps pay for the fancy antacids she has to take in conjunction with her podcast.
This is another one of those, not-a-book-review posts. Feel free to skip it if you’re just here for the books.
Otherwise, here are some thoughts on my Mom.
When I was about eight I came home from school to find that my Mom had painted the front door bright pink. It was like catching a nun in sexy red underwear; horrifying, but kind of cool at the same time. Once she came home from work and I talked to her about the new addition to the house I realized two things; first, my life was over, and second, I was kind of proud of her.
I was already something of an outcast at school because I was fat, mom kept my Keds sparkling white when everyone knew dirty was the way to go, and my dad had been a waiter at the yacht club their dads had memberships at. And now Mom was bucking convention.
Great. On the other hand, Mom was being a rebel. And rebels were cool. A few years earlier the family, which at the time consisted of my Mom, my Dad, Mom’s mother, and me, had moved into one of the newer, nicer subdivision. The kind of development with a fancy name, landscaped medians, two story houses with multi-car garages, and a neighborhood covenant. Prior to that afternoon the covenant had only affected me at Christmas.
One of the requirements of living in Riverchase was participating in the Christmas Eve Illumination. What this meant for each, individual household was that at about 3:00 p.m. on Christmas eve several volunteers would come by your house and set white paper bags filled with sand and a tea light across the front of your lot. Interior lots usually had eight to ten bags while corner lots could have close to thirty luminaries to deal with. Once the bags were placed it was the responsibility of the family in the house to light the candles at sunset and keep the bags glowing until midnight. If you were going out of town for the holidays then you were supposed to let your neighbors know so that they could take over your luminaries. Usually a lot was split in half by the two houses on either side.
Being the youngest person in the household as well as a bit of a pyromaniac the tea lights were my own special purview each year. Mom or, usually, Dad if he wasn’t working at the Yacht Club, would escort me outside at dusk and I would use the big fireplace lighter to light each candle in it’s white paper bag. Then every 20 minutes I would go peer through the windows in the dining room and the parlor to see if any candles had gone out. If one had out I would trot with my lighter and some spare candles (left over from Halloween pumpkins) and perform the necessary repairs. The last check would be at about 11:40. After that I would be bundled off to bed so Santa would come and the little glowing bags would be left on their own to gutter and burn out. Sometime Christmas day we would go out and collect the bags, dig out the candles and then pour the sand out into any low spots in the yard to level them out. Mom hated to waste things.
That was as much as I knew about the neighborhood covenant then. But apparently, there were also rules about what color you could paint your house and your shutters, what kinds of holiday decorations you could put up (nothing plastic and no colored lights), how long your grass could get, how long your garbage can could stay at the curb, how late you could use power tools outside. Lots and lots of rules so that everyone’s house would look nice, as defined by the neighborhood council of course.
What they didn’t have a rule about, because they didn’t think anyone would be that crazy, was what color your front door could be. At the time, our house was painted a light grey with dark, grey-blue shutters, and a matching front door. Houses in Riverchase were grey, beige, tan, brown, white, natural brick, or natural wood. Shutters were grey, blue, black, white, or, in rare cases, weathered wood. People didn’t, as a rule, step out of line. And if they did someone on the council would write them a polite note reminding them of the neighborhood “agreements” and they would shape up. Or else. I never did find out what the Or Else was.
But doors, everyone knew doors just came in neutral colors. They were doors. They could no more shock you than your garbage disposal could sing carols or your dog be allowed to poop in someone else’s roses. But not only did my Mother paint the front door a shocking salmon pink; she added a jaunty insult to injury by painting the mailbox flag to match. When she sold the house two years later the door was still pink.
Twenty years down the line I’m not really sure why she did it. I don’t know if it stemmed from the separation with my father, if it was a mark of freedom, a declaration that she wasn’t going to live up to anyone’s standards but her own. Maybe it was a shot in the eye for all the ladies who lunched and sneered gently at the now single secretary in their midst. Maybe there was just a sale on pink paint that day at the hardware store.
But that door will always typify my mother for me. She was always a few degrees off center, finding loopholes and giving me unique experiences while never noticing that she might be embarrassing the hell out of me.
I was re-listening to some old episodes of the SF Squeecast. I do this from time to time because they make me happy. And I got back around to Episode 31: Leave Me Hanging Like the True Friends You Are. (The episode titles are all pretty awesome.) And Lynne Thomas recommended Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer. I had picked this book up ages ago from LP because it very much “looked like my kind of thing,” but, as so often happens with me, it got stuck on a shelf and I never quite got around to it. So, I was very excited to be reminded about the book when I re-listened to the episode. And book 2, A Barricade in Hell, had come out in the meantime, so I got to read them right in a row. So, now that I’ve gushed, let me tell you about these books and what makes me so fond of them.
The elevator pitch for Delia’s Shadow is “Devil in the White City in San Francisco, with ghosts.
Delia Martin is a young woman who has grown up in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Like so many other people, Delia lost family in the disaster, but it cost her more than most because Delia can see the ghosts of all those killed in the earthquake and the following fire. If she touches a ghost, she can experience its last moments. Imagine being burned again, and again, or crushed by falling masonry, or trampled by a panicked mob every time you stepped outside your house.
For years, Delia has lived in New York, trying to get away from the horrors that San Francisco holds. But now, her best friend, Sadie, is getting married and Delia must return to the city of her birth. But she doesn’t come alone. The ghost she calls Shadow rides with her.
This ghost is different. She doesn’t just drift or repeat the moments before her death. She watches Delia with intent eyes. She wants something that she thinks Delia can give her.
The San Francisco she returns to is different. Vast stretches of the city have been rebuilt and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition is being held to show off the city’s recovery. But there is a darkness hidden beneath the glitter of the Tower of Jewels. A serial killer is stalking the streets and has threatened to claim a victim on the very grounds of the Exposition.
Delia’s family is already connected to the grisly murders. Sadie’s fiance, Jack, is one of the investigating officers. He and his partner, Gabe, are desperate to find the killer before he can come fully into the limelight and claim even more victims. Gabe is even more driven because the murders are eerily similar to a series of cases his father investigated thirty years before. It doesn’t take very long before the two halves of the story start to pull together. Shadow is somehow connected to the killer, and she has chosen Delia to finish her business with him.
I do not recommend reading this book before bed! The mystery is gripping and there are enough dark moments that you may lose sleep trying to get to the next “safe” spot in the story.
The book is told in alternating chapters between Delia and Gabe so that you always feel very much in the loop as far as the investigation goes. The side characters, Jack and Sadie, Sadie’s family, and Dora, the medium brought in to help Deila, are all distinct and vibrant. Everyone clearly has a past and a future. They’re all people, not just cutouts propped around the central figures.
There is also a slow romance between Gabe and Delia. It’s the considered courtship of two people who had not expected to ever find someone. Delia is older and much plainer than her vivacious friend, while Gabe is a widower. They do not rush into romance and no bodices are ripped or even seriously threatened. And that’s nice. It’s not that I don’t love a steamy romance. And I read plenty of books with crazy passion and flying undergarments. But, that wouldn’t feel appropriate to this story.
A Barricade in Hell is the second book in the series. Two years have gone by since the events of Delia’s Shadow. SPOILER::
Gabe and Delia are now married and settled in their own house. World War I has been grinding through the men of Europe and San Francisco is thick with the ghosts of American volunteers and the US is teetering on the brink of declaring war. And another unusually determined ghost has attached herself to Delia.
She can get through anything Delia or Dora can throw up to deter her and she seems eerily focused on Gabe for some reason. She interacts with Delia only as a way to get closer to Gabe.
Gabe, meanwhile, is working on the brutal murder of a man in a chemist’s shop. The victim was laid out, as though on an altar, covered with a cloth, and then his throat was slit. When Gabe starts looking for similar incidents he begins to turn up a troubling pattern of death and disappearance that leads him in the direction of a charismatic touring evangelist preaching pacifism and calling for America to stay out of the European war.
This time, Dora has a much bigger role, both in helping Delia cope with the purely supernatural elements, as well as assisting Gabe with his investigation. The side characters continue to be strongly written and evolve and grow alongside Delia and Gabe.
The atmosphere this time is more melancholy than in Delia’s Shadow although the threat is just as dangerous.
The third book, Against a Brightening Sky, comes out from Tor in October and it’s brilliant! I was very lucky to get an advance copy. I’ll review it a little closer to release.
I will say that it is set in 1919 and deals with the fallout of the Russian Revolution. It’s brilliant and lovely and could almost have been written with me in mind.
If you have an interest in supernatural stories, especially those set in a rich historical period, you cannot go wrong by picking up Jamie’s books. I hope you will enjoy reading about Delia and her family as much as I did.
Chris Grabenstein is the author of several children’s books including Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, which is a delightful combination of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The Island of Dr. Libirs could very well be in the same world as Mr. Lemoncello’s fabulous library. But it also might not. It is certainly fantastical enough, but there are never any direct references to the previous book. Also, the title reference to The Island of Dr. Moreau is deliberate, but not predictive.
Dr. Libris is running an experiment and it just so happens that Billy Gillfoyle, the son of one of his co-workers, is the perfect subject. So, the offer of a vacation at the good doctor’s lovely lakeside cabin is not entirely altruistic. Or, actually, at all altruistically.
There are security cameras covering the entirety of the grounds. There is a bookcase that seems to cause strange noises to come from the island in the middle of the lake.
Billy rows out and runs into the characters from the books he’s been reading. At first, Billy thinks they are just very clever actors, but soon the truth dawns on him; he can make people come to life by reading about them. This is not always a good thing. Especially when he gets the Sheriff of Nottingham shot with an arrow.
Now, Billy has to figure out how to wrangle a set of fictional characters, keep his new friend Walter and Walter’s younger sister from getting caught up in the craziness on the island, and in his spare time, he has to dodge the local bully and try to figure out what’s going on with his parents.
The Island of Dr. Libris wasn’t quite as fun for me as Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, but then, I’m a librarian. I might be biased. How many of us have dreamed about being able to bring our favorite books to life? I would absolutely experiment with Dr. Libris’s wacky equipment. And then I’d probably get killed by something I shouldn’t have read about, but it might be worth it.
It’s a very fast read, so if you like middle-grade books it’s well worth your time.
The Island of Dr. Libris comes out today from Random House.