Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Paranormal’ Category

I always enjoy a new novel by Kathryn Erskine. The Incredible Magic of Being is no exception. In this middle-grade story, Erskine has once again given a fresh approach to the themes of diversity, family relationships, and of loss and grief.

As with many of Erskine’s characters, Julian has a unique way of looking at the world. Through chapter titles, narrative, and the Facts and Random Thoughts sidebars, Julian’s love of science shines in both serious and humorous ways. For example, the first chapter is called Black Holes and Messier Objects. In this chapter, Julian compares his sister to a black hole. Anyone who has met an explosive teen with sympathize. At the same time, I can’t help but laugh when Julian shares that his sister at times makes a noise like an orangutan, wears earbuds and sunglasses even inside, and has moods that spook him. And then I feel sad again when Julian compares himself to a Messy Object. This isn’t a reference to a messy room but to an object that gets in the way.

Family relationships are an integral part of The Incredible Magic of Being. The changing dynamics between Julian and his sister Pookie will feel real to anyone who has a sibling. The two used to be like magnets. Pookie would even read to Julian when he had nightmares. Now the two have drifted apart. At times, the two quarrel such as during the car drive to their new home in Maine. Pookie tells Julian to stop kicking her backpack. Julian’s mom takes his side, asking him to stop jiggling his feet and to instead take calm breaths. When she calls him a freak, Julian chooses to touch Pookie’s backpack and inwardly hopes that she won’t notice. At times, Julian still tries to connect with his sister. When their parents assign them both chores to prepare for the family’s new Bed and Breakfast venture, Julian asks Pookie to work together with him. Because she hates the Bed and Breakfast, Pookie refuses to do even her own chores,  and so Julian elects to do all the chores to keep the peace. The enmity continues until their neighbor has a heart attack and they need each other.

Despite the fact their neighbor could prevent their family from building a Bed and Breakfast by the nearby lake, Julian feels sorry for Mr. X who has lost his wife and is now completely alone. At first Julian acts like an obnoxious child in his insistence that Mr. X needs to have him as a friend. Just as much, Mr. X acts like a grumpy old man who has no time for anyone or anything because of his age and grief. Through a series of twists and turns, a magical relationship develops between these two strong characters of very different ages. For example, in Julian’s mind, Julian’s desire for a dog and Mr. X’s need for a companion can be met, if Mr. X adopts a dog but allows Julian to care for it. Except then Mr. X surprises Julian by asking that he teach his dog and himself water safety, something that Julian doesn’t want to do due to being afraid of water, drowning, and death.

There are many more features to The Incredible Magic of Being that I’ve left out such as the relationship between Julian’s lesbian parents. It shows the realistic struggles that every couple faces in attempting to stay connected, raise children, and find a meaningful place in the world. Then there’s the slightly paranormal undertone, which leads to a surprisingly revelation. I encourage you to read The Incredible Magic of Being and experience Erskine’s memorable writing for yourself.

Past, Perfect, Present Tense is a unique collection by Richard Peck. Not only does it contain a baker’s dozen worth of masterful stories by the Newbery-winning author, but it also contains author notes about those stories and tips for aspiring writers. An engaging read at just under 200 pages, this collection is a worthy addition to the shelves of any Peck fan.

First, let’s talk about the thirteen stories. They comprise four sections: The First, The Past, The Supernatural, and The Present. One story, Peck’s first short, stands alone. Each subsequent section contains four stories each. Of the stories set in the past, I can’t pick a favorite. “Electric Summer” is a poignant tale about a farm kid who finds her twentieth-century futures at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. To my shame, “The Special Powers of Blossom Culp” is my introduction to one of Peck’s most infamous characters. How could I have missed this character when compiling my round-up of misfits or so-called bad kids? Then there’s “By Far The Worst Pupil at Long Point School,” which draws on Peck’s family history and includes a surprise twist. Of the stories set in the present, being a fan of animal stories, I enjoyed reading what is apparently Peck’s only cat story. But it’s not my favorite. Instead I’m torn between “I Go Along” and “The Three-Century Women”. Each of these stories not only offers raises questions but also take the main characters a step beyond their routine life and thereby provide quite a satisfying end. As for the four supernatural stories in the middle, I’ll leave you to discover your own favorite. J

Next, let’s talk about the author notes. Peck says that the first proves that a writer can’t have a master plan for his career. Prior to “Priscilla and the Wimps” Peck was strictly a novelist but this short, as Peck also explained in his memoir, opened up a door to other opportunities. The four stories set in the past had the most fascinating origins, three of them being as a result of call to submit to an anthology. Moreover, these three also each led to Peck writing a full-length novel. The story “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground,” which inspired the Newbery honor A Long Way from Chicago, actually began as a short story submission to a collection of a series of gun stories. The four stories based on the supernatural Peck doesn’t talk much about, because he didn’t want to give away the endings, but he does reveal that his dabbling in the genre arose in response to pleas from junior high students for horror. Both from his memoir and this collection, I learned that the Disney movie, Child of Glass, is based on a Peck novel. I sense a movie rental ahead! What stands out most about Peck’s comments regarding his four realistic stories is his observation that one never knows when a writer might be “right beside you, hunting and gathering for a future story”. To flip that around, aspiring writers also might never know when something they see happen will make a good story. 😉

Finally, let’s talk about Peck’s tips for inspiring writers. His introduction lists and explains four questions that all fiction should ask the reader. The most well-known question Peck poses is: “What if?” For my writing students, I often change this to: “Why?” What gave me most pause in this section was Peck’s assertion that, “A short story is never an answer; always a question.” His conclusion provides five helpful hints. The most established hint Peck provides is: “Nobody But A Reader Ever Become a Writer.” Sometimes I also hear the added advice to analyze books too. As a reviewer, I’ve learned far more about how “a story shapes, speaks up, and sums up” through my posts than I did my simply reading books. What stood out most to me in this section was Peck’s revelation that he takes six drafts to perfect his writings.

Although I discovered Peck as a young adult through his poems and novels, my latest encounter with him has evolved as much around his fiction as his advice. I’m enjoying the experience and hope you’ll stay with me as I continue to post content related to him. Save the dates: October 15-16!

Anni Moon by Melanie Abed is a middle-grade novel of uneven quality. At times, I raced through pages from an sincere desire to find out what would happen next to the two main characters and their comrades. Sadly, I also regularly skimmed sections just to get through yet another chapter. Such an experience made this review difficult to write. I struggled to pinpoint why I neither hated nor loved this fantasy, which some readers have compared to the likes of Harry Potter, Great Benedict Society, and even the classic Alice in Wonderland. My emotions were conflicted for the following reasons.

First, there’s the exciting but confusing plot. Most every chapter ends with a cliff hanger. That makes for an intense read, which at times is a good thing. One minute Anni and Lexi are hiding secrets from one another. The next Annie is hearing voices. Another they’re trying to protect each other from being expelled. The next Lexi is asking Anni to protect a doll for her. Eventually, the girls also face thieves, kidnappers … you name the danger, they probably face it. Therein, lies a problem. With each subsequent chapter, my questions increase about why all these threats even exist? Anni and Lexi seem like two ordinary girls living in a boarding school. Why then do so many people intend their harm? Unlike with Harry Potter and Great Benedict Society, none of these answers are forthcoming until the final chapters. I’m not positive every reader will allow themselves to be held that long in suspense.

Second, there are the mysterious but equally bland characters. Anni and Lexi are endearing, in the sense that they remain dedicated to their friendship. Naturally, we root for them to reconnect. There are hints throughout that Anni seems to have a mystery about her background and that her best friend is an elemental or a girl with magical abilities. Obviously, these two factors creates a sense of intrigue. Also, in Abed’s favor, lies the eclectic cast she has created, which extends far beyond even the two girls. The problem is that just first there are so many of them that I often can’t distinguish one from the other. In addition, just like Abed’s plot twists, characters seem to come out of nowhere and have no reason for their existence except to be weird. Who is the man with the golden fingernails? What is the point of Leo the cat? For that matter, I’m not sure that I truly understand the significance of Whiffle, who most of the time is just a voice in Annie’s head.

Third, there’s the competent but lackluster style. Almost immediately, the style is what most puzzled me. When listening to tunes on the air, some will catch my attention, others will grate on my ears, and the rest will just be tunes. If I were to focus on one of the latter, often these songs will be sung well and written well. In other words, there will be nothing wrong with them. Except for some reason, they didn’t captivate me like the others. If I pay closer attention to them, I might end up rethinking how I feel about them. Or I might still just view them as just another song. With the case of Anni Moon, Abed has an entertaining enough style to provide many enjoyable moments. Unfortunately, it’s also forgettable enough that I won’t pick Anni Moon up for a second read.

Anni Moon has magical elements like Harry Potter, mysterious elements like Great Benedict Society, and even an abundant of weird elements like Alice in Wonderland. You might check it out, as author Melanie Abed does show talent, but also please do read the other stronger novels too.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

I guess you could say that I’ve been in love with stories from the moment my Grandmother started reading them to me, and I believe it was that love that inspired me to want to write as w­ell. So, actually I should thank my most wonderful, amazing Grandma, Myrtle, for her love of stories, too.

–Melanie Abed, Melanie Abed, Anni Moon & The Elemental Artifact


In kindergarten, Melanie Abed had the life goal to become a teacher who wore only pink and ate French fries all day long. Now that she’s matured, her goal in life is to become a Miss Marple-Sherlockian-Jedi Knight. According to her About page, Abed is totally serious about this goal.

As an adult, Abed has had the privilege of working in Hollywood for over a decade in many different capacities. In this field, she worked with celebrities, directors (one of whom she married), and executives.

Now Abed has taken on the life of a full-time writer, a role she labels on her About page as “not for the faint of heart”. How, when, and where she writes depends on her current tasks. If she’s brainstorming, or working on outlines, Abed prefers energetic environments like coffee shops. She usually writes in the afternoon and evenings, tending to be more of a night owl. Abed tells One Writer’s Journey that she also enjoys writing “during rainy weather, somehow it helps narrow my focus too.”

Abed also keeps herself busy with my extracurricular activities. Some of those include skydiving, scuba diving, and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. On the calmer side, she’s also an avid gardener, and butterfly enthusiast. For several years, Abed has been growing butterfly gardens; this past year her husband and her raised 150 Monarch butterflies.


So long as I have a good writing system in place, and a few writing projects to constantly work on, I stay super busy. Daydreaming for me is a huge part of the writing process.

–Melanie Abed, Melanie Abed, Anni Moon & The Elemental Artifact

While reading and researching Children’s Middle Grade literature from both the UK and the US for well over a decade, Abed explains to One Writer’s Journey, she fell for the stories made for this age range. She views them as containing messages of hope and highlighting bravery, courage, strong morals, and other admirable traits that “even adults need to be reminded of from time to time”. This decade of research also made her feel confident about attempting to put her own middle-grade novel into the world.

Anni Moon is her first published children’s work. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Abed was published in a Medical Journal after completing my Master’s program in Psychology.

The main character has been floating around in Abed’s head for over a decade before she started writing about her. Growing up, Abed wanted to read a story about a tough spunky girl. Over the years, bits and pieces of the story were cobbled together after writing and rewriting the entire book a few times.

Before writing this story, the characters and the general concept came first, then Abed plotted and outlined. She knew Anni and Lexi’s characters almost instinctively, as well as being able to see Waterstone Academy. Abed tells One Writer’s Journey that, as a child, she lived in the Edgewater just like Anni does. She grew up imagining that there was a secret portal door to another world; “these early imaginings greatly influenced certain aspects of this story”.

The most challenging aspect of writing for Abed was balancing what the reader needs to know. In the case of Anni Moon, this refers particularly to the introduction of the Elemental fantasy world and the efforts to create an engaging plot that pushes the story forward.

Abed intentionally created an ethnically mixed cast of characters. Growing up in Chicago, Abed was surrounded by a group of children from different countries so when she started thinking about her cast it came naturally to emphasize their diversity.

I found of interest the answers to two questions asked Abed by One Writer’s Journey.

QUESTION: What was the toughest criticism given to you?

ANSWER: The toughest criticism came on my first novel, ten years ago, when I was told I needed to start over and write from scratch. That was very hard to hear at the time, but extremely necessary advice. That novel was awful, and needed a lot of work, but at the same time it taught me so much. Back then, I discovered that there are certain rules to writing, and some that are extremely necessary to employ in certain kinds of genres.

QUESTION: What was the biggest compliment?

ANSWER: I’ve been very fortunate to get some really lovely compliments on Anni Moon, lots of references to some of my favorite authors, which is so wonderful to hear, but truth be told I don’t let it go to my head. I think the most important thing about writing is shielding yourself from both positive and negative reviews and just focusing on the story at hand, because that’s what’s important.

The Night Wanderer by Drew Hayden Taylor is one of the more unique multicultural selections I have read. Taylor blends European vampire lore with modern Aboriginal culture to create a deliciously creepy tale.

Many multicultural stories are often set in the past so that authors can educate readers about a culture. When set in the present, multicultural stories instead tend to tackle discrimination. It’s rare then for a multicultural author to explore genre such as Taylor does with The Night Wanderer. The result is an unusual tale, rightfully labelled as a native gothic romance. True to gothic form, The Night Wanderer contains supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events and a curse. The secretive stranger who lodges at the Hunter home, unknown to anyone in the First Nations community, has existed for over three hundred years. One minute Pierre can be speaking to a character, the next minute he has disappeared without a trace. What’s just as mysterious is that he never shows himself in the daylight and makes a great effort to avoid eating and drinking with others.

True to romance form, The Night Wanderer also utilizes overwrought emotion and a female in distress. Tiffany Hunter’s mom has deserted the family, leaving Tiffany rebellious against her dad. Tiffany gets involved with a white boy named Tony, lets her grades slip, shuns her friends, and acts in other irrational ways. As Taylor begins to provide clues to the background of Pierre, my nervousness continued to build. Is he the one killing old-timers and young people? If so, will he kill Tiffany’s grandmother? When Tiffany runs away from home, and is followed by Pierre, what will happen when Pierre catches up to her? While vampire lore and romantic angst might seem like typical teen fare, Taylor blends them together to create a unique moralistic story that, thankfully, does not involve vampires and humans falling in love.

Normally, young adult literature is written in first person and, as such, provides immediate and personal connection to the narrator. At times, I missed this feeling in The Night Wanderer. However, there’s also a valid reason for using such a style. A prime example of the third-person omniscient style in young adult literature occurs in The Body in the Woods, where April Henry successfully intensified the suspense in her crime mystery title by switching seamlessly between various viewpoints. Similarly, by allowing readers to see inside the heads of both the peculiar stranger and the Hunter family, Taylor creates tingles. We know that Pierre has killed even those whom he loved. What is his motive in returning to the village of his childhood? We also know that the Hunter family is just distressed enough to have let down their guard. Will this be a mistake?

Although not set in the past, The Night Wanderer also does educate readers about modern Aboriginal culture by appropriately depicting a conflicted mix of old and new lifestyles. Tiffany’s family lives on Otter Creek Reserve, but she learns about Nazis and Bolsheviks at school. Her mom had been part of a traditional Native dance troupe but, at the same time, her dad drowns his sorrows over his divorce by watching television. Tiffany’s grandmother still speaks mostly Anishinabe but at the same time has a fondness for pickles. In addition, she relies on plant roots to cure illnesses while also shopping at Walmart for shoes. Even though Aboriginal families have been granted status cards for necessities, Tiffany uses it instead to impress her boyfriend with luxuries such as jewelry.  Finally, native mythology is full of mysterious creatures such as wendigoes, but Tiffany and her friends find more relevance to the monsters they battle in video games.

One of the members of the diversity committee to which I belong borrowed The Night Wanderer before me, but then returned it saying that she didn’t like to read scary stuff. While The Night Wanderer did cause goose bumps, I appreciated that my apprehension arose from bump-in-the-night chills rather than bloody and gory descriptions. If you enjoy old-fashioned horror, this coming-of-age novel is worth checking out.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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