Monday, February 20, 2017

... a haunted house in a cemetery, a seance, and a secret locket: A review of Sydney Mackenzie Knocks 'Em Dead...

“The best way to predict the
future is to create it.”
~Abraham Lincoln

Age Range: 9 - 13 years
Grade Level: 4 - 8
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Aladdin (March 7, 2017)
ISBN-10: 1481465694
ISBN-13: 978-1481465694

I’ll be honest; I picked the book because of the cover and then kept it because of the first line: “Even though I hated vampires and just about anything scary, I’d seen Fangs for You five times.”  But, before I get into the review, here’s the book description from the publisher:

West Coast girl Sydney Mackenzie moves to Delaware after her parents inherit a cemetery—and becomes involved in a mystery surrounding the Underground Railroad—in this M!X novel from the author of Lost in London, Lost in Paris, Lost in Rome, and Lost in Ireland.

Sydney Mackenzie is an aspiring actress and average less-than-popular California Girl. So when her parents drop the biggest bombshell ever—they have inherited a cemetery called Lay to Rest, which means a move to boring Delaware—Sydney is NOT happy. And to make matters worse? Their “new” house is actually right on the cemetery grounds—and it isn’t exactly California chic.

But after settling in, Sydney discovers that the creepy old house might have more history than she once thought. And someone—or something—is encouraging her to delve deeper into a decades-old mystery that dates back to the Underground Railroad. Will Sydney’s filmmaking skills and the help of some new friends be enough for her get to the bottom of the mystery of her new home?

At the start of the story, Sydney is desperately trying to fit in with the rich pseudo-mean girls of California who do little more than name drop brands they’re wearing. Sydney tries to fit in but she is not wearing designer clothing because her parents just can’t afford them. Her on-again/off-again best friend is Leigh who is the one, when she approves of Sydney’s hair/outfit/shoes, that goes out to eat fancy frozen yogurt with Sydney. Leigh is rich and can afford all the designer things that she deems important. Sydney thinks she wants this kind of life. Then when her phone breaks and she cannot afford a new one (because Sydney actually had to use her own babysitting money to buy it), AND learns that her parents inherited a cemetery and a Victorian house in Delaware, Leigh doesn’t show much interest in remaining Sydney’s long-distance friend. California-Sydney is completely unlikable in the beginning of the story… but then there’s Delaware-Sydney: a girl just trying to find friends so badly that she’ll do anything to just fit in. The cool thing is that these new friends like her for just being herself.

The Delaware friends are cool, especially Johanna who pretty much constructs a Ouija board- MacGyver style. She also studies a few books over the weekend to learn how to do a séance. And, it just so happens that Johanna is a natural.

There’s a somewhat-believable-not-hokey-at-all ghost. There’s the cemetery IN HER BACKYARD! There’s a scary tunnel that leads somewhere. They find a secret locket and a secret message. There are boy crushes and boy characters who are actually pretty good characters while simultaneously acting like young boys. And, there’s a pretty interesting somewhat-historic conclusion. How's that for holding back the spoilers!?!

I loved reading this book. It was high-interest kid-lit, and a great deal of fun. At 244 pages (for my Advanced Readers Copy), I was a bit disappointed that some of the storylines and characters didn’t have more, well, storyline and depth of characterization. For example, Elliott, the landscape designer for the cemetery who wears a clock and decorates the cemetery with holly berries. He was well-read and interesting so there was so much potential there. I wanted him to be more involved in the storyline. While I liked the conclusion, it was wrapped up too quickly and neatly.

But overall, this was a super cute story for your kids, your siblings, or your inner-child.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

...Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Richmond, VA...

We think that
a powerful and vigorous movement
is impossible without differences
"true conformity" is possible
only in the cemetery.
~Joseph Stalin
Mount Calvary Cemetery in Richmond, VA is right down the river from Hollywood Cemetery and Riverside. In fact, during our MeetUp last Saturday, we accidentally ended up in Riverside at one point since there is no clear dividing line between the two. Hollywood is a bit up a hill and closed off by a fence, just in case the dead try to mingle. There are approximately 30,000 buried on about 60 acres of Mt. Calvary with 30 more acres set aside for future development. This is a good thing since active cemeteries are often better maintained.  

Photo taken by Chris Beasley; all other possibly unfocused photos are taken by me :p

Founded as a non-profit cemetery in 1880 by the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, today it welcomes members of all faiths and ethnic origins.  While it is open to all, the large crucifix at the center of the cemetery reminds visitors this was intended as a Catholic cemetery. There are a few striking differences between Hollywood and Mt. Calvary; and, since they are located right next to one another, it’s hard not to compare them. 

Mt. Calvary is filled with crosses and religious statues. While you’ll see an occasional cross in Hollywood, crosses were considered by the Victorians to be associated with Catholicism. Both cemeteries have their share of angels.
Mt. Calvary also has sections for religious groups, including around the central crucifix for higher ranking Catholic officials such as priests and bishops. Over to the side was a beautiful section of Catholic nuns.

Mt. Calvary also has a section for Interment of Angels, where little unborn babies from the hospital are buried at no cost to the family. There is a statue honoring the unborn child and a memorial garden given by the Richmond Knights of Columbus. I just want to clarify that this is for families who are hoping to take home their little ones but a medical emergency makes this impossible. From my own best friend’s perspective, she went through labor too early in her pregnancy and lost her twins. Having planned for babies, her family was already financially strapped with baby clothes and furniture. The cost of a funeral was certainly not on their radar. When I read that this was a cooperative effort among Richmond area hospitals, Bliley Funeral Home and The Catholic Diocese of Richmond, I could not help but think how generous and loving this is.

There were some distinct markers that I had not seen in other cemeteries including this resting child within a shell. The shell is a symbol of the Christian pilgrimage.

There were also distinct markers like these made out of small stones, and these that have an arch connecting two separate markers.

Finally, it appears that many of the statues are in a bit better shape than those in Hollywood Cemetery. This could be because of less foot traffic, and perhaps even the lack of trees in Mt. Calvary. Trees, as lovely as they are, do cause a good amount of damage.

While I need to do some research on some of the individuals buried at Mt. Calvary, this post is more of a visual overlay of the cemetery.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

...Vampire’s Day Soiree- a book inspires clothing and a conference...

“There is a reason why
all things are as they are.”
~Bram Stoker, Dracula
While this is my third year participating in the Vampire’s Day Soiree thrown by Holly at Holly’s Horrorland, this is the Sixth Annual Vampire’s Day Soiree.  In lieu of Valentine’s Day, bloggers focus on all things Vampires! I always seem to focus on my love for vampires.

This week students in my Introduction to Literature course and I are wrapping up our reading and discussions of Dracula.  I delight in that I am able to both read and share this book with students annually. I also amuse myself by dressing the part. Rather it is a small brooch ensemble, a cluster of necklaces, a dress, or a full outfit, I always try to channel the day’s teaching into my attire.

Recently, when my fella and I were out for a dinner date, we strolled into the local Barnes & Noble and noticed that some employee had a great time setting up their displays (pictured above). 

This seems like the perfect display for the Vampire’s Day Soiree. This is how Dracula resides in my head but my actual Norton Critical Edition has seen a great deal of love. Along with annotations (and it seems like I’m always finding more to comment on), there are wine stains, wax droplets, and tape (because it’s falling apart and I refuse to admit that I need a new copy). It’s a great visual aid when I tell my students to be active readers, not passive, delicate readers. We’re English Majors! We’re supposed to get into texts and grapple with words and phrasing.

Although teaching Dracula this semester is coming to an end, I already am starting to think about the summer. I know that a hot, Virginia summer does not make most folks consider vampires; however, this summer I’m teaching my course, Vampires in Literature, Film, and Pop Culture; and, I will be taking a little trip down to Texas for the World Dracula Day Symposium 2017 at North Central Texas College, a two-day event to celebrate the 120th Anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker's brilliant text. Along with an evening keynote address by Dacre Stoker, great-grand-nephew of Bram Stoker, to kick off the event, the speakers will include John Edgar Browning, Gordon Melton, Nancy Rosenberg England, Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, Thomas Garza, and Dax Stokes along with local vampire-fiction authors.
I’m thinking about the trip a lot this week since the airline changed the flight schedule and I had to cancel the entire purchase. After they refund me, I will start again in hopes that scheduling this trip doesn’t suck the life out of me ;D (I so amuse myself)

Happy Vampire’s Day!