Reviews of the Week with Stephen Chbosky, Emily Lloyd-Jones, Jennifer Givhan, and More!

Every weekday we feature a different review on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, or in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

An immersive history of country music, timed to accompany a new Ken Burns documentary; a family drawn to stop the opening of a portal to hell in a small Pennsylvania town; a trio of grave-digging orphans who are forced to confront an ancient curse; the surreal journey of a pregnant woman who, with her neighbor’s child, looks into mysterious disappearances; a creepy collection of stories for young readers with benevolent takeaways. All the best titles to pique curiosity and chills are offered in this week’s Reviews of the Day, posted between August 19 and August 23, below.

Monday, August 19

Country Music: An Illustrated History, by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns

Though capacious, this fresh and redefining history is not an encyclopedia, but rather, as Burns and Duncan point out, a narrative “describing a uniquely American art form and how it grew.” The story spans the earliest person-to-person days of front-porch music-making on through each wave of technological innovation from records to radio (which created the first country stars and launched the Grand Ole Opry in 1925), movies, and TV (including Hee Haw’s 25-year reign), concluding with the superstars of the 1990s. Burns and Duncan focus on the many cross-pollinations involved in the evolution of country music, from centuries-old songs from the British Isles brought to the New World along with the fiddle and the guitar and African musical traditions and instruments, especially the banjo, to work songs, the blues, hymns, and ballads. Country shtick is a tradition, beginning with Fiddlin’ John Carson, an Atlanta factory worker who posed as a hayseed fresh off the mountain in the 1920s, and blossoming in the singing cowboy mania jump-started by Gene Autrey. More profoundly, the authors consider how country music grew out of the “depth of human tragedy in the South,” as observed by Wynton Marsalis, one of many illuminating commentators.

Tuesday, August 20

Imaginary Friend, by Stephen Chbosky

Chbosky’s long-awaited sophomore novel (after The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 1999) is less emotionally charged YA and more reminiscent of the epic novels of Stephen King (like 1984’s The Talisman). Widow Kate and her 7-year-old son Christopher are fleeing her abusive boyfriend, and they seem to find a soft landing in a small western Pennsylvania town. It quickly becomes apparent that they have been drawn here by forces both loving and malevolent to stop the opening of a portal to hell. Christopher’s imaginary friend, who, after he went missing for days, led him out of the woods, seems to hold the key to the terrors that plague their neighbors. With multiple points of view that probe the thoughts and nightmares of characters from all over town, this is an immersive read that walks the line between dark fantasy and horror.

Wednesday, August 21

The Bone Houses, by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Ryn, 17, is more comfortable with the dead than most. She’s the gravedigger for the tiny mountainside village where she and her two siblings, long orphaned, eke out a living as times grow ever harder. It’s because of her proximity to death that Ryn is one of the few villagers who believes in the old legends of the bone houses—corpses who rise at dusk in the nearby forest, given life by an old curse. In fact, she more than believes it: she’s seen and fought the bone houses herself. When a mapmaker named Ellis, haunted by his own elusive past, appears in her village determined to map the mountain, the dead rise at an alarming rate, and Ryn joins him on a quest that sends them both into a dangerous world filled with ancient magic.

Thursday, August 22

Trinity Sight, by Jennifer Givhan

Mexican American anthropologist Calliope Santiago, heavily pregnant with twins, is driving home from work when she sees a brilliant flash of light and crashes her car. She and the babies are not hurt, and the car has only minor damage, but Calliope’s sense that something is wrong is ratcheted up. The cars on the road are empty, her cell phone doesn’t work, and neither does the radio. When she arrives home, she finds her house empty; her husband and her young son are nowhere to be seen. Her neighborhood is just as abandoned. The only person she encounters is six-year-old Eunjoo, her next-door neighbor’s child. Calliope takes Eunjoo and ventures to her aunt’s house further south. On this journey, Calliope experiences events that cannot be explained by science and remind her of stories her great-grandmother told her.

Friday, August 23

Out to Get You, by Josh Allen and illustrated by Sarah J. Coleman

Dive deep into a nightmarish wonderland where everything and nothing is as it seems in this collection of short stories complete with creepy illustrations. This haunting anthology will plunge young horror enthusiasts into their darkest dreams, from evading the demands of a malicious genie to hoping not to be consumed by a hungry house to sympathizing with a shadow sick and tired of serving every whim of his human. Allen expertly weaves intricate, relatable details from the tween experience with elements of the supernatural to present readers with a baker’s dozen of chilling tales, some of which impart contemporary life lessons such as being kind to animals, treating others how you’d like to be treated, and behaving well in school and at home, all with a spooky twist in time for Halloween. Selfishness, bullying, and cruelty have no place in this nevertheless scary world, which often changes in a blink.

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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