Category Archives: YA and kids

One Horse Town

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Once, a long time ago, I’d stepped off the track close to the deep part of the forest. I remembered Sander going mad with anxiety, calling for me to come back, but I only wanted to know why nobody in the Hollow went any farther than that point. I hadn’t seen any witches, or goblins, or the Horseman. But I had heard someone, someone whispering my name, and I’d felt a touch on my shoulder, something cold as the wind that came in autumn. I’d wanted to run then, to sprint terrified back to the farm, but Sander was watching, so I’d quietly turned and stepped back on the track and the cold touch moved away from me.

Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, (there is a link to the full text of that in EXTRA STUFF) has been read by Americans since it was first published in 1819. What we remember most about it is the image of The Headless Horseman. There is some question about who this very un-pedestrian equestrian might be, a late Hessian, perhaps, whose cranium had had a close encounter with a cannonball, who was eager for revenge, and searched relentlessly for his lost noggin. Or maybe a canny wooer (one Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt) of a local lass looking to frighten the superstitious competition out of town with a bit of over-the-top theatrical horseplay. The story about the horseman had predated Brom and Ichabod vying for the hand (and property) of Katrina Van Tassel, so, was it a real ghost story or just a hugely successful prank?

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Christina Henry – image from her Goodreads page

In Christina Henry’s Horseman we are brought back to Irving’s one-horse town, Sleepy Hollow, two generations on. Brom and Katrina are grandparents now, managing their land, doing nicely with their farm. Brom remains a big man, both literally and figuratively, a powerful figure in local affairs, as well as someone still able to take on conflict kinetically when needed. Ben, our first-person narrator, Brom and Katrina’s fourteen-year-old grandchild, admires Brom completely, would like nothing more than to grow up to be as much like him as humanly possible.

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, l858 – image from The Smithsonian American Art museum

Ben and a friend are playing in the woods one day when they hear a group of riders pass, Brom in the lead. Ben is desperate to see what’s up, even though the group is headed to a part of the woods that is considered way too spooky to venture into, with good reason.

Just beyond the circle of men was a boy—or rather, what was left of a boy. He lay on his side, like a rag doll that’s been tossed in a corner by a careless child, one leg half-folded. A deep sadness welled up in me at the sight of him lying there, forgotten rubbish instead of a boy.
Something about this sight sent a shadow flitting through the back of my mind, the ghost of a thought, almost a memory. Then it disappeared before I could catch it… Both the head and hands seemed to have been removed inexpertly. There were ragged bits of flesh and muscle at the wrist, and I saw a protruding bit of broken spine dangling where Cristoffel’s head used to be.

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Image from ClassicBecky’s Brain Food

And the game is on. Had this bully of a teen been cut down by a violent spectre or was there a more flesh-laden killer on the loose? There is a second mystery, as well. What’s the deal with the “ghost of a thought, almost a memory” that Ben experiences while witness to the carnage? But wait, there’s more. There were mysteries left over from Washington Irving’s original story, such as was it a ghostly headless Hessian who had driven Ichabod Crane out of town, and what had actually happened to Crane after he fell off his horse and vanished?

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Image from Deviant Art – from Kanaru92

Irving makes a point of the superstitious bent of the locals in the Hollow.

…the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. – from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A belief in the supernatural, justified or not, prompts the locals to believe the worst (including the W-word) about any they find outside the norm, as defined by their constricted minds. They see dark forces and conspiracies where none exist, well, probably. And seek to blame someone, usually someone perceived as different. I know that reminds me of mindless seekers after blame and conspiracy who roam the planet today, but maybe that’s just me. Feeding the blame-and-conspiracy machine, there is a gender identification seam that permeates as one of the characters contends with being seen one way, while feeling internally entirely other. Other is not an entirely ok thing to be in early nineteenth century small-town America.

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Image from Classic Becky Brain Food – by Jurei-Chan

Family has a lot to do with who we are, who we become, what we might be capable of, for good or ill. Ben’s love for Brom is manifest and a serious source of strength. Ben’s relationship with Katrina is more conflictual, yet with strong underpinnings. But what about other family? There is connection and help to be had in the household, with one of the staff providing a solid core of support. And what about community? Sander is clearly a bff, although not necessarily the best able to offer support in all circumstances. Ben does not seem to have much beyond that. Thus the need for Brom’s strength. Thankfully, Ben has internalized that, so has at least a chance to engage in battle without being entirely over-matched.

We trot along by Ben’s side as dangers present, whether it is obvious or not that they are perilous. Ben does get tingles about certain people, internal red flags of distrust. Are they valid or paranoid?

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Image from Deviant Art – by Ochreface

The book is not marketed as YA, but it felt like a YA title to me. Henry has written several books that take a new look at classic children’s stories, tending toward a younger readership. Most serious violence remains off screen, although we do get to see its aftermath. Profanity is absent. There is a piece in here about people, not all people, but some people, being susceptible to manipulation by an outside force encouraging the dark piece that resides deep within to come to the surface, to take over, even if only for a time. I had a problem with this, as it exempts some from having that bit. Certainly, some people are better than others, more ethical, more moral, kinder, smarter, more empathic, more honest, more responsible, but even the best of us harbors at least a sliver of darkness. This sort of not-quite black-and-white, but maybe charcoal-gray-and-white view of human potential for unpleasantness added to the YA feel. That said, there are a couple of tough physical battles and issues of sexual attraction and predation are raised, which gives it a bit more bite.

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Image from Art Abyss – by Gabriel Williams

In literature, The Woods is generally a symbol of the challenges facing young people on the cusp of adulthood. Ben’s adventures fit quite nicely into that, passing through the fires of challenge to reach maturity in a very different and interesting way. Ben, gifted with considerable horse sense, meets those trials head on. I found Ben’s playtime activities, though, a bit off for a child of fourteen, ten maybe. Perhaps Henry was looking to make the distance Ben travels from this to that seem longer than it really was.

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Image from Disney

But fret not. Though I am well past the YA demo I found this an engaging, fun, creative take on an old favorite. Ben is an appealing lead, struggling with the choices life presents, a dark horse to root for. There are adventures aplenty, head-scratcher mysteries to be solved, clues to be followed, warmth and family love to be appreciated, and a new, quite surprising interpretation of an old mystery. Is it scary? A bit. I am particularly immune to getting the creeps from books, and have a simple metric. Does anything in the book make the hair on my arms stand at attention? For what it’s worth, my pelt remained at ease. But it is clear that there is plenty of creepy material to be had in Horseman, and it is likely that many readers will get more of a frisson from those than might an old oater like me.

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Image from Sleepy Hollow wiki – from the film Headless Horseman

Horseman is a perfect read for the Halloween season. But you might not want to head off to a favorite outdoor reading spot if it is more than just a little way into the woods.

The dark silhouette seemed to unfold—no, unfurl, sinuous and soft—and I thought how can an animal stand like a man?
My breath seized inside my lungs because just for an instant I thought I saw eyes looking back at me, eyes that could not be there because no human was there, no human could possibly have eyes like that—eyes that glowed, eyes that pulled, eyes that seemed to be tugging on my soul, drawing it out through my mouth.

Review posted – October 1, 2021

Publication date – September 28, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Horseman from Berkley, via NetGalley in return for not losing my head writing a review.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Head on over and say Hi!

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, GR, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest from the author
—–from her site – excerpt
—–from her site – Seven Short Stories

Items of Interest
—–Gutenberg – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–Wiki on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–History.com – What Inspired ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? by Lesley Kennedy
—–Classic Becky’s Brain Food – Legends of the Headless Horseman – Sleepy Hollow’s topless performer was far from the first
—–One cannot possibly read the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Horseman without recalling one of the greatest tabloid headlines of all time, of April 15, 1983, from the always-classy New York Post

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Songs/Music
—–Argent – Hold Your Head Up
—–Paul Anka – Put Your Head on My Shoulder
—–The Rollingstones – Wild Horses

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, YA and kids

Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

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In the beginning was nothing. From nothing emerged night. Then came the children of nothing and night

Seventeen-year-old Finn Sullivan has the luck of the Irish, if you consider how the phrase was used during Irish immigration to the New World. When she was living in Vermont, her mother was killed in an auto accident. A move to San Francisco did not improve things for good as her older sister, Lily Rose, committed suicide there. A need for a change of scene brings Finn and her Da back to the town where he was raised, Fair Hollow, in upstate New York. Enrolled in a local college, HallowHeart, she meets the dazzling but mysterious Jack Fata. They may or may not be fated to be together, but the Fata family is very definitely a big deal in this small town, which is not exactly the epitome of exurban serenity.

“So what’s with all the little pixies everywhere? Carved into HallowHeart, the theater…”
“They were worshipped here…”
“Pixies?”
“Fairy folk. Some of the immigrants from Ireland followed the fairy faith. And the Irish had badass fairies.”

The local décor seems to favor the mythological, as if the entire place had brought in the Brothers Grimm and Arthur Rackham to consult on a makeover. The older mansions tend toward the abandoned and the locals tend toward the odd. Finn finds a few friends, and together they try to figure out the enigma that is Fair Hollow, maybe save a few folks from a dark end, and try to stay alive long enough to accomplish both.

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the author

There are twists aplenty and a steady drumbeat of revelation and challenge to keep readers guessing. Finn is easy to root for, a smart, curious kid with a good heart who sometimes makes questionable decisions, but always means well. Jack offers danger and charm, threat and vulnerability. And Reiko Fata, the local Dragon Lady, a strong malevolent force, provides a worthy opponent. Harbour has fun with characters’ names that even Rowling would enjoy. Jane Ivy, for example, teaches botany. A teacher of metal-working is named, I suspect, for a metal band front man.

Each chapter begins with two quotes (well, most chapters anyway). One is from diverse sources on mythology and literature, and the second is from the journal of Finn’s late sibling. They serve to give readers a heads up about some elements of what lies ahead. One of the things that I found interesting about this book was the sheer volume of references to literature and mythology from across the world, not just in the chapter-intro quotes but in the text as well. I spent quite a bit of time making use of the google machine checking out many of these. You could probably craft an entire course on mythology just from the references in this book. In fact the author includes a bibliography of some of the referenced works. There are references as well to painterly works of art. Harbour includes a glossary of terms used by or in reference to the Fata family that comes in very handy. The core mythological element here is Tam Lin, a tale from the British Isles about a man who is the captive of the Queen of the Fairies and the young lady who seeks to free him.

The dream scene where Finn is speaking with her older sister and things grow sinister was an actual dream I had when I was seventeen. The revision was influenced by a book called Visions and Folktales in the West of Ireland, by Lady Gregory, a collection of local stories about some very scary faeries. The Thorn Jack trilogy is influenced by Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Frankenstein. – from the author’s site

It is tough to read a book about young attraction of this sort and not think of Twilight, or Romeo and Juliet for that matter. And where there is a school in a place in which there are some odd goings on, and mystery-laden instructors, there will always be a whiff of Hogwarts in the air. But this one stands pretty well on its own.

Gripes-section. I did indeed enjoy the mythology tutorial available here, but sometimes I felt that the author could have pared this element down a bit. One result of this wealth of material was that it made the book a slow read for me. But then I have OCD inclinations, and have to look up every bloody one of these things. You may not suffer from this particular affliction, so may skip through much more quickly than I did. Or, if you are a regular reader of fantasy fiction, you may already know the references that my ignorant and memory-challenged self had to look up. Also, there are a LOT of characters. I tried my best to keep track by making a list and I strongly advise you to keep a chart of your own. It can get confusing. Finally, the quoted passages from Lily Rose’s journal do not much sound like passages from anyone‘s journal and seem to be present primarily to offer a double-dip into mythological reference material.

That said, Thorn Jack was engaging and entertaining, offering mystery, frights, young romance, and a chance to brush up on your mythology. Think Veronica Mars in Forks by way of Robert Graves.

Harbour has two more planned for the series, The Briar Queen and The Nettle King. I would expect she would address some of the questions that linger at the end of this first entry. What did her parents know and when did they know it? Is there an actual core curriculum requirement at HallowHeart College?

Review Posted March 14, 2014

Release Date – June 24, 2014

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Also, definitely check out another of Harbour’s sites, Dark Faery/Black Rabbit , which includes additional entries from Lily Rose’s journal, among other things.

book cover There are some scenes in Thorn Jack that include statuary of magical beings. I wonder if, as Harbour is from Albany, and was certainly exposed to Saratoga Springs, only about 30 miles away, (my wife and I visited in Autumn 2013) she might have been influenced by this Pan statue and/or similar pieces in Congress Park there. On her site, she talks about being inspired by abandoned mansions along the Hudson. Here is a site that shows all sorts of abandoned buildings, along the Hudson and elsewhere.

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Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

book coverSparks fly in the second volume of Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire. Victory in the 74th games has not been all that sweet for surprise double-victors Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark. And it is extremely sour for the reigning government. Katniss had shown them up big time when she publicly defied the gamemasters to keep from having to kill Peeta, an act of sedition as much as it was an act of courage and honor. President Snow burns with rage at Katniss for showing up the games, the Capitol, and him personally. He recognizes that it is necessary to give the subjects of his government some hope, but Katniss and Peeta have provided a spark to the tinder of popular resentment, and Snow needs to forestall a conflagration.

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The author

Katniss is not in a good place back in District 12 after the games. Yeah, she has a nifty new house in the victor village, and her family is well taken care of, but she is experiencing a fair bit of PTSD. Collins describes Kat the victor.

She has nightmares. She has flashbacks. And in the beginning you can see she’s practicing avoidance. She’s completely pushed Peeta to arm’s length, you know? She’s trying to stay away from him. Why? Because everything associated with him except some very early childhood memories are associated with the Games. She’s conflicted to some degree about her relationship with Prim because she couldn’t save Rue. So she’s dealing with all that, and her method of dealing with it is to go to the woods and be alone and keep all of that as far away as possible, because there just are so many triggers in her everyday life. – from the Time interview

Part of the requirement for games winners is to go on a Victory Tour across all the districts. One of the soft spots in the logic of the story is that President Snow would think for a second that parading across the defeated districts the youngsters who had killed their children was anything but a guaranteed recipe for disaster. It is believed that Katniss’ popularity and selling the lie of her death-defying love for Peeta would gain some love for the Capitol, and would dampen public unrest. Sure, whatever. Of course, Katniss manages to fan the flames of the people’s unhappiness with things as they are by her acts of kindness and respect for some of her fallen competitors and their families. As her popularity grows, the pin she wore in the 74th games, the mockingjay, spreads as a symbol of resistance. I am sure Emily Dickenson would approve. Time for Plan B.

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With his hopes for a palliative Victory Tour in ashes, Snow come up with another plan. How better to douse the embers of hope than to destroy all those who would fan the flame. So, for the 75th games, instead of a new crop of potential contestants, children between 12 and 18, from whom game contestants might be selected, he decrees that this time the tributes (those selected) will be chosen from the pool of prior winners. Hell-uh-oh, Kat and Peet, this means you-oo. Hell hath no fury like a president scorned. There is no law, only power, and Snow aims to char those caught, or even suspected, of playing with matches. And if crushing the Hunger Games victors from all twelve districts crushes the rebellious spirit of the people, well, may the odds be ever in your favor. Of course, we all know there is a third volume in the series, so I am giving nothing up by reporting that the plan goes up in smoke.

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There are many notions in play in Catching Fire, among them visions from the classical world of Greece and Rome. The whole notion of the games was taken from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. King Minos of Crete had issues with Athens. There are varying accounts of how this came to be, but the accounts agree on the arrangement that was made. Athens was forced to send seven boys and seven girls to Crete every nine years to make a nice snack for a Minotaur, who resided in a labyrinth constructed by Daedelus. The kids are sent, but Theseus, an Athenian prince, wanted to get rid of the Minotaur, and thus the need for kid-burger specials, and so inserts himself in place of one of the young’uns. He gets some help from Cretan princess Ariadne, who offers a way for the children to escape the Minotaur’s maze after Theseus, hopefully, dispatches the beast. Her solution is significant here, beyond the classic story, as the unraveling of string, of a sort, figures large in Catching Fire in helping out the tributes.

Katniss Everdeen grew from a raw teen in Book I to become a warrior. She grows stronger still in Book II, overcoming her fears and miseries, growing in strength, even while accepting that her fate was likely sealed. She is a gladiator, thrown into an arena to do battle for the pleasure and control of the rulers. And another classical notion comes in here, the slave warrior leading a rebellion. Katniss, by defying the Capitol in Book I and by her actions this time, has become the face of popular resistance, whether potential or kinetic.

There are contemporary issues that resonate as well. Collins said:

The Hunger Games is a reality television program. An extreme one, but that’s what it is. And while I think some of those shows can succeed on different levels, there’s also the voyeuristic thrill, watching people being humiliated or brought to tears or suffering physically. And that’s what I find very disturbing. There’s this potential for desensitizing the audience so that when they see real tragedy playing out on the news, it doesn’t have the impact it should. It all just blurs into one program. – from Scholastic article

And it is not exactly news that we are increasingly living in a world in which the one-percenters get to live lives of obscene luxury while working people are denied basic rights. The ancient Roman practice of eating to excess, then using a vomitorium to make room for even more indulgence is brought up in Collins’ vision as a very telling link between decadence old and new.

And then there is the romantic element. Peeta is a wonderful guy, pure soul, gifted communicator, smart, strong as an ox, loves her, but, while she may find him attractive as a friend, does she find him attractive enough to throw over her childhood sweetheart, Gale? The pressure is unspeakable as the President, in order to save his own face, is insisting that she and Peeta make good on their cover story from their first game together. At the end of the 74th, Katniss had threatened pairs-suicide if the rulers insisted on having a single winner, and she prevailed. But the Capitol sold it as a manifestation of her love for Peeta, while the reality had been that she had stood up against the Capitol rulers. She agreed to help sell the lie after the games in order to keep bad things from happening to her family. Peeta and Katniss have to cope with the public lie of their being a couple, but must also contend with the fact that they really are very fond of each other. Add in another hottie in the shape of the studly Finnick Odair (a tribute in the 75th) and the potential for emotional imbalance is considerable.

Some of Collins’ secondary characters get to spread their wings a bit, most particularly the District 12 mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, who gets to do a lot but much of his activity is told after the fact rather than shown. The president, Coriolanus Snow, gets to strut and fret his hour upon the stage, issuing threats mostly. I expect it is no accident that the president’s given name is the same as that of a Roman consul notorious for his low opinion of the ruled.

Ok, I really enjoyed this book. I do have one gripe, though. Really, you knew there would have to be one. The Hunger Games story is really one long tale, and in order to keep from having to sell the book with its own set of wheels so you can tote it around, the publisher has divided it, like all Gaul, into three parts. (Unlike the greedy film makers who are taking it a step further and making four films out of a trilogy) And while it may make sense for this volume to have ended where it did, it seemed to me that it went from full on action to see ya next time in an awful hurry. That’s it. That’s my gripe. I had originally intended to make this a four-star rating, but on further consideration, in light of what Collins has done in terms of looking at real issues in a serious way, while offering top-notch entertainment, bringing in cultural foundations, and for making me root for a teenager to do something other than get a bad case of zits or run afoul of a serial killer, I am upping it to five. Catching Fire sizzles.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

An excellent cheat sheet to catch you up on what happened in the first book

An interview on Scholastic.com

Neat bit on Theseus and the Minotaur in an SC interview in the School Library Journal

The five part Time interview

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

SC’s site

 

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

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When a family is murdered by a mysterious killer, one of the intended victims is missing, a young, diapered boy, who had wandered off just before the crime took place. But the killer needed to complete the job. Fortunately for the boy, he was taken in by the late residents of a nearby graveyard. And when the spirit of his newly deceased mother asks for their help, the residents agree to raise her son. He is given to the care of the Owens couple and named “Nobody,” Bod for short, as he looks like “nobody but himself.”

In this Newbery Medal, Carnegie Medal and Hugo Award winning novel, it takes a graveyard to raise an actual corporate being, and there are many who chip in. Perhaps most important is Silas, resident of the worlds of the dead and the living. As Bod grows there are many interesting sorts who cross his path, a young witch lacking a gravestone, an unscrupulous dealer in antiques, a snake-like protector of a long-dead master, and an array of teachers. And there must, of course, be a girl, Scarlett by name, a living girl. Bod does venture out into the unprotected world beyond the graveyard gates, not always with permission. He wants to go to school like other kids, and does, with mixed results. He wants to buy a headstone for a friend who lacks one. He wants to spend time with Scarlett. As he enters his teen years, he determines to find the person who had killed his family.

This is not your usual coming-of-age story. Bod is indeed a likeable kid, good-hearted, innocent, easy to care about. One of Gaiman’s inspirations for this story was Kipling’s The Jungle Book, with Bod as Mowgli and the graveyard residents substituting, sometimes generically, for their animal counterparts in the earlier work. There is a section equivalent to Mowgli having been kidnapped by monkeys, a werewolf might be Akela. Bod’s nemesis is the killer Jack, the Shere-Khan of this tale. Each chapter jumps in time, and we see Bod take on new challenges as he ages. Of course, his home being a graveyard, the challenges he faces are not pedestrian. And finally, he faces an adult, mortal test that will define whether he actually gets to come of age or not.

There is so much in The Graveyard Book that is just flat-out charming that you will find, as I did, that your lips keep curling up at the corners. From Bod trying to find properly fitting clothing, to struggling to learn some of the unusual skills the locals have mastered, to coping with some of the lesser baddies who make life difficult for those around them, Bod will gain your allegiance and your affection.

The baddie, Jack, is a purely dark sort. No gray areas there. And that makes the central conflict one of pretty much pure good, against completely pure evil. There are plenty of moments of real danger for Bod and that keeps tension high. But there are nuances to other characters that add color and texture to what might otherwise have become a flat gray panel. These additions add heft to the story, and make one wonder larger thoughts about the limits of change, of redemption. This one is easy to recommend, to kids of all ages, but don’t wait too long. You never know when it might be…you know…too late.

PS – Disney has acquired the film rights for this and it is likely that it will emerge, someday, with a look similar to that of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
The official website for the book

Neil Gaiman reads the entire book

This Literary Wiki page seems rather slight

I also reviewed Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane in August, 2013, and Stardust, briefly, a few years earlier.

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