Review: Castle Hangnail, by Ursula Vernon

The death of Terry Pratchett left a chasm of loss in the heart of fantasy lovers, one that will never be completely closed by those who love Sam Vimes, Sally, Cheery, Nobby, and the myriad other endearing characters who populate Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s largest city.

Castle Hangnail has come along at the perfect time. It cannot, will not, relieve the sense of loss, but it offers a middle-grade fantasy that hits a delightful inventiveness high filled with wit and humor. The story itself is simple: A twelve-year-old girl runs away from home to become the castle’s Mistress—the post having fallen vacant after the last Mistress zapped a television repairman and decided she was a rosebush—and must complete a series of magical tasks to prove her worthiness . . . and to prevent the Board of Magic from decommissioning the castle, thus throwing all the minions out of work.

What’s the story? On one level, this is the story of a young witch determined to become the mistress of a tatty castle, who finds she has a list of magical tasks to be accomplished. Molly is not the usual storybook heroine: She’s short and pudgy, with fuzzy brown hair and strong opinions, one of which is she is determined to be a wicked witch, but not evil, which is good since she has an irrepressible kind streak.

She wrestles with grown-up problems: Being recognized as competent despite her unexpected appearance, lack of qualifications, and her inner doubts. An abusive friendship from her past adds to her challenges and introduces a theme that doesn’t get as much attention as it probably deserves: Friendships in which one party makes the other weak and powerless. Molly’s kindness and innate courage, however, ensure all comes out well for everyone concerned, and while the ending struck me as not only improbable—which is saying a lot in a fantasy—but rushed, it also allows readers Happy Ever Adventuring promise for Molly and the loyal minions of Castle Hangnail.

Those familiar with Vernon’s Dragonbreath series or her short fairytale, Nurk, will recognize the wry humor, although Hangnail affords the author greater and more glorious scope.

First, there’s Majordomo, the castle’s guardian and a lisp-less Pratchettian Igor, as fond of cats as he is of his fellow Castle minions, an affection rivaled only by his determination to keep Castle Hangnail from being decommissioned. In this he is aided by his fellow minions, all of whom are more amusing and lovable than those yellow blobs in the movies. There is sentimental, stalwart, and invisible Lord Edward, who occupies a magical suit of armor and offers polite, if ineffectual, protection. In the kitchen is a minotaur cook with an iffy grasp on English and a hatred of the letter Q. Pins is a walking, talking pincushion and talented tailor, inseparable from her best friend, a hypochondriac goldfish who lives in a small bowl. Best of all is Serenissima, daughter of a djinn and a shopkeeper with some mermaid ancestry, a creature of steam who is handy for cleaning the carpets and drapes, creating a sauna, and—oh, so clever—who spends her free time in a teakettle “writing epic poetry about boilers.”

Adding to the fun, Clockwork Bees buzz around the gardens and the basement, while talking bats sleep in the high tower.

In what I choose to interpret as nods to Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, Molly stomps about in boots—“very serious boots . . . [that] looked as if they could kick a hole in a stone wall and have fun doing it”—although Majordomo occasionally worries they might not be sufficiently Wicked boots for the castle’s mistress. In fact, I will utter what Pratchett purists may consider heresy: Castle Hangnail is funnier than the Aching books and (blessedly) less obsessed with examining the dreary illogic of human failings. Indeed, I found the second and third books (A Hat Fully of Sky and I Shall Wear Midnight) to be reading slogs, too intent on forcing character development and almost devoid of the deft wit of many (but not all) of Pratchett’s other works. Molly is as thoughtful as Aching, but much kinder, less enigmatic, and altogether more fun.

Highly recommended.

Castle Hangnail Book Cover Castle Hangnail
Ursula Vernon
Juvenile Fiction
Dial Books for Young Readers
2015-04
320

When little, twelve-year-old Molly arrives at Castle Hangnail to fill the vacancy for a wicked witch, the minions who dwell there have no choice but to give her the job and at first it seems she will be able to keep the castle open, but Molly has quite afew secrets that could cause trouble.

Review: Dreamwood, by Heather Mackey

In an alternate late 19th century, twelve-year-old Lucy Darrington flees a San Francisco finishing school and heads to the fictional Saarthe, an alternate Pacific Northwest where logging is the major industry within lands still owned by indigenous peoples. She steps off the train in Pentland, hoping to reunite with her father, a ghostologist whose work on the East Coast has diminished as the result of a scandal. Instead of a happy reunion, Lucy finds her father is missing and the region is filled with tension as loggers battle a plague, called Rust, killing the enormous kodok trees and thus threatening the primary source of income for settlers and First Peoples alike.

A mysterious old man tells Lucy that only the mythical and elusive Dreamwood—a tree out of legend—can heal the Rust plague. Sure her father was looking for the truth about Dreamwood, Lucy sets out to find him and immediately faces a perilous reality: Dreamwood exists (if at all) in the Devil’s Thumb, a peninsula suffused with mystery and magic, and from whose wooded shores few ever return.

Accompanied by Pete Knightly, who hopes to find a cure for Rust that will help his own deeply indebted family, and a Native American girl, Niwa, Lucy reaches the Devil’s Thumb. Here she and Pete face their own weaknesses, an environment hostile to humanity’s arrogant carelessness, a group of unscrupulous men also searching for Dreamwood, and His-sey-ak, the nature spirit who haunts the forest.

Clever, courageous, pragmatic, headstrong, and arrogant, Lucy yearns for friendship even as she is often careless of its demands. She is likeable, a character easy to root for, even though Mackey occasionally allows Lucy to stray into cliché: For example, although Lucy is warned that death awaits those who dare take anything from the forest on the Devil’s Thumb, she quickly yields to temptation, as does Pete. Could Mackey not think of anything less signaled and predictable to prove her main characters are prone to human frailties? This incident, along with one or two others, detract from an otherwise suspenseful climb to the story’s climax, which itself feels rushed, as if Mackey was running out of inventive steam.

Mackey does not excel at detailed, satisfyingly grounded world building. Instead she relies on broad and unsatisfying explanations of this alternate history, in which added (and thoughtful) details would have been welcome. Pentland, for example, is presented as the barest sketch, as is the topography of the Pacific Northwest, whose its dramatic mountains and volcanoes, mists and infrequent blue skies cry out for better exposition. And the mysterious old man Lucy encounters in the woods near Pentland? He is painted sketchily and exists, all too obviously, as a means to push Lucy in the direction of Dreamwood and the Devil’s Thumb; if mentors are going to be featured in a story, they deserve better treatment.

More pleasing is Mackey’s portrayal of the Lupines, a fictional Native American nation whose members understand the uses and dangers of the magic that suffuses the region and who—a refreshing plot point—have retained control of most of their ancestral lands. While I would have loved more participation in this story of Niwa and her people, the inclusion of the Lupines adds to the inventiveness of this alternate history.

Lucy’s quest contains enough that is creative that most readers will forgive the plot holes, thin secondary characters, and clichéd plot points to enjoy this supernaturally-tinged adventure/mystery.

Dreamwood Book Cover Dreamwood
Heather Mackey
Juvenile Fiction
Putnam Publishing Group
2014
328

"12-year-old Lucy Darrington goes on a quest to find her missing father in a remote, magical territory in the Pacific Northwest"--

Horror movies

Most horror movies are pretty horrible. Not horror-inducing, just bad.

Predictable.

Simplistic.

Boring.

Psychopaths prey on teenagers or unwary travelers with chainsaws, axes, long, sharp knives, or other implements guaranteed to cause pain and death. Spurting blood. Anguished screams.

*Yawn*

No psychopath has yet equalled the remarkably non-violent and un-bloody (well, barring one notable scene) Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Terrified victims race from room to room (or tree to tree if lost in a forest). Then, just as safety is (apparently) in reach, the killer leaps out and takes a fatal swing.

Settings are as clichéd as the monsters: Houses where a murder occurred. Abandoned lunatic asylums. Foggy forests. Cemeteries. Halloween.

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There aren’t many movies I can say truly scared me, but here are a few I can recommend.

THE UNINVITED (1941), starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, is a traditional haunted house story that, for all its age, uses excellent special effects to create lovely levels of creepiness to this story. Ghosts—there are two—appear unexpected and, in one case, in unexpected form. Even two big handicaps—the lack of acting skills possessed by Gail Russell, who played the young woman in peril, or the purple dialogue handed to an otherwise wonderful actress, Cornelia Otis Skinner—can mar the pleasures of this straightforward ghost story that contains, at its heart, a murder mystery.

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), starring Bruce Willis in one of his best roles, a brilliant Haley Joel Osment, and a lovely turn by Toni Collette, as Osment’s mother, bewildered about how to understand and support a son who obviously doesn’t fit in with other kids. First time I saw this, I did not see the ending coming, and I was delighted, especially when repeated viewings revealed writer-director M. Night Shyamalan played fair: The clues are all there, as are a plethora of red herrings. Creepy moments occur when least expected: Collette turns her back on her neat kitchen for a few seconds, only to turn and find ever cabinet and drawer has silently, swiftly opened. Osment goes the bathroom in the middle of the night and, as he stands before the toilet, something passes down the hallway behind him. Marvelous.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) scared me silly first time I saw it. Oren Pelli, the writer and director, understood a critical point few writers/directors grasp and fewer put into action: Haunting terror is best evoked not in chainsaws or masked killers but by making the normal suddenly otherwise. In PARANORMAL, a door moves slightly in the middle of the night while the homeowners sleep . . . With no visible help. A Ouija board suddenly catches fire. Footsteps, outlined in powder, appear on the bedroom floor at night. Knocks and thumps abound. All of this is recorded by a video camera set up by the skeptical, but accommodating boyfriend of a woman who senses something isn’t right in their otherwise mundane townhouse. The ending is a shocker, but even so—and there’s no spoiler here—we see only the same characters we’ve been following throughout the movie.

THE INNOCENTS (1961). One slightly paranoid governess (the excellent Deborah Kerr), two bright, cheerful children, a warm and jolly housekeeper, and a huge mansion deep in the English countryside, and memories of the children’s former governess and the absent master’s valet, both now dead. Memories . . . or ghosts? The governess sees a man’s face in a window. A woman stands, very still, on a small island in the middle of the estate’s lake, watching her . . . then disappears. The children begin to behave and speak oddly, and Kerr—who played the uber-governess in THE KING AND I (1956)—grows increasingly confused and frightening. No cheerful Rodgers & Hammerstein songs to set all right in this movie. The fact that many who see this film version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw know Kerr from KING makes her terror even more effective. Another shocker of an ending, in part because we are given is no answer to the question: Is the house haunted?

WHAT LIES BENEATH (2000). Imperfect, but the first half contains some wonderfully creepy moments created by another director (or writer; possibly both) who realized that terror lies in the familiar suddenly turning strange. Like bathrooms in which the tub fills itself with hot steamy water and words are drawn by an invisible figure on the steamy medicine chest. A front door opens by itself just as star Michelle Pfeiffer reaches for the knob. A framed photograph of her and her loving husband (Harrison Ford) keeps falling to the floor and breaking the glass; the family dog freaks out by the lake water behind the family home. Then there are the dysfunctional neighbors, one of whom disappears under mysterious circumstances. Things go a bit silly and hysterical in the last third, as if all involved in the production became impatient to get it done, but overall this is an entertaining and nicely hair-raising movie.

Review: The Book Scavenger, by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (2015)

Emily Crane’s parents pull up stakes every year and move their family to a new state, working virtually and indulging their love of travel to gather material for a book, 50 Homes in 50 States. Their teenaged son seems happy enough with this routine, but twelve-year-old Emily dreams of staying someplace long enough to make friends, to create an emotional anchor in a life filled with detachment. The Cranes next stop is San Francisco, and although Emily dreads the move, this one offers at least one promise of pleasure: San Francisco is the home and literary playground of Garrison Griswold, the originator of what Emily considers “the coolest book-hunting game in existence.”

Alas, the same day Emily and her family drive into town, thugs attack Griswold in a BART station, beating him severely. Now the literary world awaits daily updates from the hospital: Will Griswold survive to reveal his newest book-hunting venture?

James Lee, Emily’s new neighbor, seems familiar with every one of San Francisco’s hidden stairways and twisty streets, and he loves puzzles as much as Emily. They quickly become friends, and James takes Emily—and Matthew, her older, rock-loving brother—on their first foray around town. When they venture into a BART station, Emily finds a copy of Poe’s The Gold Bug jammed behind a trash can, a discovery that plunges her into danger from Griswold’s attackers.

Emily quickly realizes The Gold Bug contains clues about a treasure Griswold has hidden somewhere in the city. She and James set out to crack a series of clever ciphers, only to find that each success raises the risk they will be found by Griswold’s attackers. Emily’s fears are heightened by a growing realization an even more complex and important puzzle confronts her: Having made a friend, how does she keep him?

Bertman paints such a delightful picture of San Francisco that, as I read, I began to think it’s time I revisited that city. Emily is nicely drawn, a girl of realistic strengths—tenacious, clever, and cheerful—and weaknesses—impatient and self-involved, perhaps the result of too much aloneness in her young life. James’s talent lies in solving ciphers, highlighted by a contest he enters with sharp-tongued classmate Maddie, but his strongest (and most endearing) quality is his insistence upon friendship’s mutuality. Emily’s big brother, Matthew, is absorbed in the rock band Flush, much to Emily’s dismay, but this obsession isn’t allowed to override (entirely) his essential kindness. Other characters are drawn much more sparely. Clyde and Barry, the two thugs searching for The Gold Bug (and Emily), are inept and mildly humorous moments, but their voices are virtually interchangeable. Social Studies teacher, Mr Quisling, is almost a complete blank; Bertman seems to think using the name excuses her from character development, yet I wonder how many readers will grasp the historical reference. Ditto Mr Remora; he is peculiar, but hardly sinister, and once again Bertman has chosen a name that is almost laughably on-the-nose, a reminder to all writers that what worked for Charles Dickens doesn’t necessarily translate well in modern middle-grade fiction. Hollister, bookstore owner and former friend of Garrison Griswold, stands in for the de rigueur voice of (mostly) wise, if occasionally oblique, guidance. And the abrupt about-face made by Emily’s parents at the end of the book reduces these already-thin characters to little more than paper dolls being manipulated to force a happy ending. Surprisingly, the least well-drawn character is the most essential—Garrison Griswold—but as his puzzle is the critical issue, this superficiality doesn’t affect the story.

I imagine many readers will be sad the Book Scavenger game doesn’t exist beyond Bertman’s nicely-designed book-promotion efforts. Some, I hope, will be inspired to explore further the scandal-ridden history of Masquerade, a 1979 picture book that induced many to search the book’s illustrations for clues to a treasure hidden by the author, Kit Williams.

Is Book Scavenger perfect? No. Early on, when Emily and James query a potential online ally about the scavenger game, they receive repetitive non-answers; I recognized these immediately, and I imagine most will recognize the frustrating computer response. And, most important, because the book’s villains are so flimsily drawn and possess barely an ounce of the sinister, the story’s climax–replete a lone cavalryman-to-the-rescue–is disappointingly weak. I was left wondering if Bertman was in a rush to meet a deadline or wasn’t quite sure how to end this otherwise delightful story. Emily, James, Matthew, and their puzzles deserve better.

The good of Book Scavenger, however, far outweighs the so-so. Overall, the writing is solid, the mystery nicely complex, the ciphers and puzzles are pure fun, and the main characters appealing and resourceful. Highly recommended.