book review

Not-So-New Books: The Game of Silence

Not-So-New Books: The Game of Silence

The story of Omakayas continues in this second book in the late elementary/early middle grades series, which focuses on the changes brought about by white settlers in Native American territory.

New Books Roundup: Spring 2018

New Books Roundup: Spring 2018

New books! Indian mythology, lightning-induced math genius, quirky seaside towns, and more round out this list of new fiction.

New Books: Recently Read in Middle Grades Fiction

New Books: Recently Read in Middle Grades Fiction

A boarding school on a ship, a demon with a centuries-old agenda, and a haunted house in Chicago bring a little mystery to middle grades fiction.

New Books: Recently Read Roundup

New Books: Recently Read Roundup

It's all about adventure in these new books, whether you're visiting a fantasy world where one brave guild stands between a city and disaster or meeting a tween determined to start her own restaurant.

Book Review: Bound by Ice: A True North Pole Survival Story

Bound by Ice: A True North Pole Survival Story
by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace (Calkins Creek)

Have a kid who enjoys true-life survival stories? Is your family studying polar explorers, post-Civil War America, or the Arctic? This page-turning nonfiction book for ages 10 and up would be a great addition to your reading list.

Award-winning authors Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace tell the story of U.S. naval officer George Washington De Long’s ill-fated 1879 attempt to reach the North Pole on the U.S.S. Jeannette, exploring what went wrong on the voyage and bringing the ship’s crew to vivid, memorable life. Using the extensive records kept by De Long and other crew members as source material, the Wallaces give readers a close-up look as the Jeannette gets locked in by ice and De Long and his men fight for life through one dramatic setback after another.

One of the things that kept me gobbling up this book were its many surprises. One of the first surprises was learning that in the 19th century, many people believed that there might be a tropical sea at the North Pole. The desire to discover and explore this fabled tropical seascape was part of what drove George W. De Long on his journey.

The book also has an interesting connection to today’s debates over fake news and media sensationalism. One of the funders of the voyage was James George Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald and purveyor of outrageous, sometimes completely fabricated news stories, including an account of escaped zoo animals in New York City goring and mauling people—a completely phony tale. The Herald’s fictionalized accounts of the Jeannette’s voyage misled the crew’s loved ones and fanned wild rumors throughout the two years the crew was out of touch with the rest of the world.

At a time when science is being increasingly disregarded and disrespected by many policymakers, this book feels like a cautionary tale with startling relevance.

Another interesting aspect of the Wallaces’ account is the way it demonstrates the danger of making important, life-and-death decisions on the basis of junk science. De Long based much of his planning for his polar voyage on the theories of a so-called North Pole authority who argued that explorers could easily reach the North Pole in two months if they followed a warm Pacific current called the Kuro Siwo. This ill-informed “expert” predicted that explorers would find polar regions “more or less free from ice” and theorized that an expedition could safely complete a North Pole expedition in a couple of months. 

At a time when science is being increasingly disregarded and disrespected by many policymakers, this book feels like a cautionary tale with startling relevance.

One of the biggest pleasures of Bound by Ice is the way the Wallaces bring the members of the expedition to life with small, vivid details. We learn that Civil War hero and chief engineer George Melville was annoyed by the ship meteorologist’s tendency to burst into snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan songs. We discover that the ship naturalist was tortured by dreams of pumpkin pie, “the particular weakness of a New England Yankee,” as he put it, when the men’s diets had dwindled down to a monotonous round of canned vegetables and seal and polar bear meat. 

Another compelling aspect of the book is the tender love story between De Long and his wife Emma. The authors thread excerpts from De Long’s letters to Emma throughout the adventure, reminding readers of the very personal stakes involved in this real-life drama.

The story of the Jeannette definitely has tragic elements. But it’s also a deeply inspiring story of persistence, teamwork, and devotion to making a contribution to science and history. Readers will come away with a new perspective on the North Pole and a fresh appreciation for the sacrifices that explorers have made to expand our knowledge of the world. 

Not-So-New Books: Redwall

It’s been a challenge to find books that my 10-year-old son likes to read or listen to, but we have hit gold with the first book of a very long series: Redwall by Brian Jacques. It has everything that my son likes: nature (the characters are all animals), adventure, and rebellion (he is a Star Wars fan, after all). 

Redwall is an ancient stone abbey, inhabited by peaceful mice that take care of and offer comfort to all the woodland creatures living in Mossflower—the forested area around the abbey. Unfortunately, an evil, one-eyed rat named Cluny and his followers are on their way to Redwall, aiming to conquer it and seize control of all of Mossflower. The mice of Redwall and their friends have to band together to save their home. Among them, a very special mouse named Mathias is on an epic journey to find the sword that belonged to Martin the Warrior, an ancient hero in Redwall history. He knows that if he can find this sword, he might be able to save Redwall. 

This book is on one hand a classic story of good versus evil, but it’s also a very intelligent book. I love how unlikely characters are brought together and become friends in order to fight against injustice. Female characters take on key roles in the fight too. The author shows how pride, arrogance, and greed will eventually send a character to his or her doom. This is a book that as an adult, I enjoyed just as much as my son. We are now reading the second book in this series, Mossflower, and oh my, there are twenty more books after that! I’m pretty sure my son will want to read them all.

Book Review: The Curve of Time

The Curve of Time
By M. Wylie Blanchet

The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet is a must-read for all homeschooling moms. It’s a memoir written by a widow and a mother of five children, who, during the 1920s and 30s, took her children on their 25-foot cruiser, The Caprice, to explore the waters of British Columbia every summer. During the winter, they lived in their Little House, which overlooked the water, and she home educated her children. This was at a time when there were still relatively few white residents in this area.

There is information that is not given in the book, such as what exactly happened to her husband, or where her children went after they grew up. If you aren’t familiar with British Columbia, you may not understand exactly where every inlet and fjord is that they explored, but none of that bothered me. I was enthralled with each chapter, which is a short account of each of their adventures. They followed the orcas, had an encounter with a bear and cougar, talked to locals, and explored the winter villages of Native Americans who were still living there at that time. (I didn’t exactly approve of how they entered the villages without permission, but considering this was written in a different time, I decided to appreciate this first-person account of this primary document.) 

As I was reading the book, I marveled at this woman who not only was raising five young children all by herself, she also had to be a captain, navigator, meteorologist, and mechanic. I traveled on these waters many years ago with my father in his boat, so I know it’s important to understand the tides and how deep the water is before you attempt to enter any small cove. And Wylie Blanchet had no technology to help her! There was no such thing as a depth finder in her day. Then I thought about the challenges of raising and homeschooling two boys on land with my husband, and I wondered if she might be a super woman. 

Or, perhaps she found it easier to contain all five children into a small boat. There was no end to the entertainment they found on the beaches and in the woods, catching fish for dinner, picking berries, escaping bears, finding small fresh water lakes, and making friends with other settlers along the way. I appreciated her details about the flora and fauna. I felt like I was in The Caprice and seeing a world that I’ll never be able to go to. I was sad when the book ended because I wanted the adventures to continue.

This book might be a little boring for the younger crowd, but it would be a good book to include in history studies or as a selection of Canadian literature for high school students. The 50th anniversary edition includes black and white family photographs taken by Blanchet’s family, which will bring you closer to this endearing family.

Summer Reading: Catherynne M. Valente’s ​Fairyland Series

Welcome to Summer Reading 2017! I’ve written before about the glorious summers of my childhood, when I could devote long uninterrupted hours to burning through enormous Lord of the Ring-type sagas. I’ve also shared the cautionary tale of a dear friend whose parents made her put down her book and play outside, but I’m sure none of our readers could behave in so dastardly a fashion. (NOTE: I am not entirely against the outdoors and exercise and whatnot, but they made her put down her book. Things like that take years of therapy to get over.) With all that in mind, when Amy asked me to do some Summer Reading posts, I decided I wanted to focus on some of my favorite series for children and young people—but only series that have already come to a satisfactory end, as there’s nothing worse than being stuck with a cliffhanger while you wait for an author to hurry up and write, all the while worrying that before they finish they might die in some sort of freak word-processing accident.

I thought I’d start with my very favorite fantasy series. For decades, if you’d asked me what my favorite series was—the books I’d read over and over, the books I’d have to make sure my own kids read, my desert island books—I would have said the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I was (and still am) a hardcore Narnia-head. As a child, I reread the series every summer. I wrote Narnia fanfiction (before ‘fanfiction’ was even a word). I love these books. (NOTE: I know that not everyone loves Narnia because of the Christian allegorical aspects. I completely understand that, but it’s not hampered my own love of the series because I was raised ‘unchurched’ and didn’t even notice that it was a Christian allegory until I was in my late teens or 20’s. I was <ahem> perhaps not the most observant of readers.) But now, if I had to pick one series to keep me company on a desert island, one series to pass along to my kids, I think I’d pick Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland books.

The Fairyland books, with one exception, are about September, a 12-year-old girl living in WWII-era Nebraska, with a mechanic mother who works in the aircraft factory and a father missing overseas, until—in the tradition of children who get lost in wardrobes and swept up by passing tornadoes—she catches a ride with the Green Wind and his Leopard. They drop her off in Fairyland, ruled by the evil Marquess, where September soon finds herself on a quest to defeat the Marquess and free her friends. These books are for all ages, beautifully written, with a heroine who relies on her bravery, her intelligence, and her friends to save the day. There is little that is black and white in Fairyland: even the villains have complicated histories of good intentions gone bad, and even the heroes can make poor choices under difficult circumstances. I’ve read these books both for my own enjoyment and as readalouds (which is particularly wonderful, as Valente has a gift with language and original phrasing) and I think they belong on every family’s bookshelf.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

“You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,” said the Green Wind. “How would you like to come away with me and ride upon the Leopard of Little Breezes and be delivered to the great sea which borders Fairyland?”

In book one, September visits Fairyland for the first time and meets her soon-to-be-best friends: A-Through-L, a Wyverary, and Saturday, a Marid. (A marid is a type of ifrit or djinn, and a “Wyverary” is the offspring of a wyvern and a library. And honestly, if that isn’t enough to send you out to find this book immediately, I don’t even know what you’re doing hanging around these parts.) Both of her friends are held captive (one way or another) by the evil Marquess, ruler of Fairyland, and September must defeat her to save them.


The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

In book two, September returns to Fairyland to find that its magic is being sucked away by Fairyland Below, ruled by Halloween, the Hollow Queen. September soon discovers that Halloween is her own shadow, left in Fairyland after her previous adventure, and when she reunites with her friends, A-Through-L and Saturday, she finds that they have shadows also.


The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

In book three, September returns to Fairyland with her new sidekick, a 1925 Model A Ford, and discovers that she’s been named a criminal, specifically a “royal scofflaw, professional revolutionary, and criminal of the realm.” On a mission to the Fairyland’s Moon, she must defeat a mysterious moon-Yeti and figure out what actually happened to all of Fairyland’s missing fairies. Unlike the first two books, this one ends with something of a cliffhanger, but that’s okay because you can go straight to book four...


The Boy Who Lost Fairyland

...which begins not with September, but with Hawthorn, a changeling who was born a troll in Fairyland before being spirited away to the human world. I was all set to be annoyed with Valente for swapping out September for another protagonist, but I immediately fell for Hawthorn, who, in an effort to act like a Normal child starts writing a rulebook of Normal behavior (e.g., “Knives and scissors are sharp, but different than swords, and you can only use them to fight cucumbers and onions and packages from the postman, not Ancient Enemies from Beyond Time,” followed by “There are no such things as Ancient Enemies from Beyond Time”). Plus he hangs out with the best wombat ever in the history of wombats. We catch up with September eventually and another cliffhanger leads us straight into the fifth and final book...


The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

...where different teams, including September and her best friends (and Hawthorn with his friends) must compete in a Royal Race for the throne of Fairyland. And really, I don’t want to tell you anything more because you should go out and read these fabulous books for yourself. Happy Reading!



Not-So-New Books: The Homeward Bounders

The Homeward Bounders
By Diana Wynne Jones

Jamie is a curious kid. And one day, his curiosity gets him in the worst kind of trouble when he stumbles on a group of shadowy, cloaked figures playing a secret game and gets expelled from his world by them: “You are now a discard. We have no further use for you in play. You are free to walk the Bounds, but it will be against the rules for you to enter play in any world. If you succeed in returning Home, then you may enter play again in the normal manner.”

As Jamie stumbles through his new circumstances, figuring out the rules of the game as he’s pulled from fantastic world to fantastic world (Diana Wynne Jones is a genius when it comes to creating worlds) at irregular intervals by Them, he dreams of finding his way home. What he finds instead are two friends in the same position he is: Helen, a priestess with a magic arms, and Joris, an assistant to a famous demon-hunter. Together, they decide that it’s time to put an end to Their manipulative gaming and to get back to their own worlds for good. They end up in up in a contemporary version of England, where they team up with two regular people and Joris’s demon-hunter owner who’s crossed world barriers to find his assistant. But defeating Them is no easy task, and the price for victory may be greater than they anticipated.

I love Diana Wynne Jones for many reasons, but one of them is that her books are always surprising—even though she often plays with the same ideas, the same worlds, and even the same characters, you can never predict what’s going to happen next in her books. Homeward Bounders was the first of her books I read as a kid, and it stuck with me—it’s so weird and compelling, and it has one of the best and saddest last lines of any story ever. I love the way her books blend the mythology and history we know with her own made-up history and mythology, so that you’re constantly realizing connections right along with the characters in the story. There’s always an undercurrent of darkness in her books, and it’s definitely strong in this one, but I like that her happy endings are never simple. Reading level-wise, this is a middle grades book, but like so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, it’s hard to pigeonhole. Older or younger readers could definitely love it.

New Books: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives

The question that always comes up when we’re talking about people like the Founding Fathers is this one: How could the people whose legacy is the freedom and democracy established by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution keep slaves? This book doesn’t attempt to answer that unanswerable question. Instead, it shines a spotlight on some of the people enslaved by these heroes of early U.S. history—which, in the case of this well-researched and utterly compelling collection of mini biographies, feels like the only reasonable way to approach this not-so-beautiful piece of our history.

Davis focuses on the lives of five enslaved people (he specifically avoids calling them slaves because of the way that word can dehumanize people by reducing them to property): Billy Lee, who was George Washington’s valet; Ona Judge, another enslaved member of Washington’s household who the family pursued aggressively when she escaped to freedom; Isaac Granger, a skilled metal worked owned by Thomas Jefferson and given by him, along with the rest of the Granger family, to his daughter as a wedding present; Paul Jennings, who served as James Madison’s valet, and Alfred Jackson, who was an enslaved person owned by Andrew Jackson’s family. At first, these may seem like stories of ordinary, everyday people, but that’s the point: For every person like Billy Lee who left more than a bill of purchase in the annals of history, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, whose stories we just don’t know. Davis does a great job piecing together the scraps of available history into narratives that capture the experience of being a slave in the early days of the United States. Some of it is really hard to read—Washington’s dogged pursuit of his escaped slave stood out for me—but these feel like stories that need to be told. I also appreciated that Davis addresses upfront the problem of history and enslaved people—namely, that slaves are not likely to speak ill of masters with the power of life and death over them and that chroniclers of enslaved people might have had a tendency to pick and choose what they included in their narratives, often biasing their work toward positive comments. 

This book isn’t a hatchet job on our Founding Fathers, but it does point out the inherent contradictions between their ideal of democracy and their pragmatic approach to slavery in their own lives. I think this should be on every middle grades and high school U.S. history reading list. I had a few problems with the book—the author has a tendency to talk down to his audience and overexplain, which got in the way for me sometimes—but on the whole, it’s an excellent read on an important subject and well worth adding to your library hold list, stat.

Not So New Books: Mandy

Mandy (Julie Andrews Collection)
By Julie Andrews Edwards

Sometimes, you want a book that challenges you to think deeper and harder. This is not that book. Mandy is pure comfort reading goodness at its best—you know pretty much from page one that everything is going to turn out okay and people are going to live happily ever after, and that’s just fine.

Mandy is a 10-year-old girl living at a perfectly nice orphanage in a small British village. She has plenty of friends and there’s nothing even remotely Dickensian going on, but still, she longs for a home and a family of her own. One day, she climbs the orphanage wall and discovers a little cottage that appears to be completely deserted. She decides a lonely cottage and a lonely girl were meant for each other and sets to work cleaning and cozying up the cottage and its garden. The cottage starts to feel more and more like home—but Mandy’s secret life takes a toll on the rest of her life, with her friends frustrated by her constant sneaking off and the head of the orphanage frustrated by disappearing tools and supplies Mandy’s “borrowed” for her project. Mandy’s so engrossed her cottage life that she takes a big risk that puts her in danger—until she’s rescued by an unexpected friend. (Cue lead-up to adoption and happy ending for all.)

I will admit that I’m a sucker for books where people fix up old houses, and this is probably one of the books that launched that obsession: Like Mary Lennox with her bit of earth or Twig with her tomato can fairy house, Mandy delights in having a space of her very own, and the book lovingly chronicles both her industrious tidying up and its happy results. It’s an old-fashioned domestic story, and even though it was published in the 1970s, it has a timeless feeling. I love how sweet and simple it is. Sometimes, that’s just really what you want: a heartwarming story with lovely domestic details and a happy ending. I especially love that Mandy's life as an orphan isn't terrible—her orphanage is a nice place, the other kids are nice, and the woman in charge is kind. Of course she wants a family, but it's nice to have an orphan story that doesn't start out with a child in utterly miserable circumstances.

It’s recommended for elementary students, but we enjoyed it as a readaloud with a 2nd grader and an 8th grader, and my 8th grader has gone back and reread it on her own a couple of times. If you’re a fan of books like A Little Princess, The Secret Language, Jane of Lantern Hill, or The Secret Garden, I think you’ll really enjoy Mandy. (And yes, it’s by THE Julie Andrews!)

Book Review: The My Side of the Mountain Trilogy

When I was a young girl, I read My Side of the Mountain, and it instantly became one of my favorite books. I wanted to be Sam Gribley, a fifteen-year-old boy who lives alone in a tree in the Catskill Mountains. He learns to live off the land, and he captures and raises a peregrine falcon, named Frightful, to help him hunt. He also becomes friends with The Baron, a weasel, learns the ways of other forest animals, and meets some interesting people, too.

I knew I had to read this book to my eldest son, who is 10 years old, and I hoped he would like it as much as I did. He did. And to my delight, while we were reading it, I discovered that its author, Jean Craighead George, wrote two sequels to My Side of the Mountain. The second book, On the Far Side of the Mountain, is about when Sam’s younger sister, Alice, joins him on the mountain, making a home of her own in a nearby tree. But Sam is devastated when a so-called conservation officer confiscates Frightful, and then to make life more complicated for him, his sister disappears. Most of this book is about Sam’s quest to find Alice and the danger that he and a friend encounter when they finally get close to finding her.

What I love about this second book is that it deals with the issue of capturing wild birds of prey, which is against the law, yet it also tells us that it’s possible to become a legal falconer. This theme of conservation is carried further into the third book, which has become my favorite in this trilogy. Frightful’s Mountain is written entirely from the falcon’s perspective, and she is now a free bird. Since Sam raised her, however, she has a lot of challenges to overcome, if she wants to become an independent falcon that will raise offspring of her own. With Sam’s help, and with the help of other people who love peregrine falcons, she slowly makes her way back into the wild.

I was not surprised to see that My Side of the Mountain was a Newberry Honor Book. It is definitely a classic. This trilogy, also, is a must read for anyone who loves nature, particularly birds. That’s probably why my son and I loved it so much. ;)

New Books: The Star Thief

The Star Thief
By Lindsey Becker

Honorine can’t remember anything from the time before Lord Vidalia brought her home with him to his country estate, but she knows that she’s fortunate to have found a home. Not all orphans are so lucky. Sure, the starching, dusting, and cleaning duties that fill her days as a maid aren’t intellectually stimulating, but she has Lord Vidalia’s library of curious books, and she has her mechanical inventions, and—until he left for boarding school after his father disappeared—she had her best friend Francis, heir to the Vidalia estate. It’s a perfectly fine life—that comes crashing to a halt one night when the mansion is invaded, and Honorine flees into the grounds to escape and plunges into an adventure she could never have imagined.

The constellations we know—Orion, Andromeda, Canis Major—are alive, and they’re being hunted by a mysterious Mapmaker in a fantastic, steampunk flying ship. The constellations have their own fantastic, steampunk flying ship, and Honorine’s torn between the constellations—with whom she seems to have a real connection—and their hunters, who include her old friend Francis. As she’s pulled into the adventure, she realizes that the constellations may also be able to help her solve the mystery of her parents.

The Star Thief is a middle grades fantasy novel with a premise that any star-gazer would love, and it’s full of complicated alliances and even more complicated machinery. It’s a totally fun, action-packed adventure story—it’s so fun that it may not even bother you that the characters get short shrift in this story. (Even Honorine feels one-dimensional most of the time.) The constellations’ living ship sometimes feels like it has more personality than any of the creatures inhabiting it. (The ship is pretty amazing and imaginative, so that’s maybe less of an insult than it sounds like.) If you can coast along on the plot and fantastic descriptions, you’ll definitely enjoy the ride, but if you’re looking for something deeper from a book, this one is likely to disappoint. I like a fun read now and then and I enjoyed The Star Thief, but I couldn’t help wishing for the book it might have been. I think it would be fun to do as a readaloud when you’re studying constellations or as a pool or park readaloud on a lazy summer day when you just want something with lots of action to entertain everyone.

Book Review: The Murk

The Murk
By Robert Lettrick

If you read the Fug Girls, you know all about the scrolldown fug. If you don't read the Fug Girls, you should know that a scrolldown fug is when an outfit looks totally normal until you get to about the waist, where it switches to clown pants or carwash streamers or the dreaded tights-are-not-pants territory. What does this have to do with book recommendations? Well, The Murk by Roberty Lettrick is essentially the literary equivalent of the scrolldown fug.

It starts out normally enough. Piper, a tomboy-turned-pageant queen, is convinced that the cure to her baby sister's rare genetic disease is a plant hidden somewhere in the Okefenokee Swamp. Accompanied by her former best friend Tad (whose botanist ancestor perished on a similar search in the Okefenokee in the 1800s and who has a giant crush on his ex-best bud), her stowaway little brother, and a teenage swamp guide named Perch, Piper sets out to find the mysterious silver flower that is rumored to heal every malady. Perch cheerfully narrates the wonders of the Okefenokee to Piper and her companions (not to mention the reader) as they explore the swamp, tracing Cole's path through the wilderness. It's edu-tainment at its most palatable.

Then things get weird. Because the mythical plant isn't just real, it's sentient, with the power to hypnotize the gators, turtles, and other animal inhabitants of the swamp to do its bidding — and apparently its bidding is to make Piper and Company its dinner. (Oh, did I mention that the plant is carnivorous, too?) The second half of the book veers into a bizarre horror movie territory, with Piper escaping the burning digestive acids in the plant's giant stomach and fire-bombing the heart of the plant. Yeah. I know.

Usually, I'd skip reviewing a book like this simply because of the violence (which definitely gets a bit over-the-top), but I find myself with a soft spot for this book, despite its turn-for-the-weird. It's about the Okefenokee—one of Georgia's seven natural wonders—and the book does contain a wealth of information about one of our country's most famous swamps. And while the whole killer plant thing is pretty wacky, it does introduce some pretty interesting facts about botany. And honestly, it's so utterly odd that I want someone else to read it so its weirdness can be fully appreciated. So I say this is one to stalk at the library — worth checking out, though I'm not sure I'd want to allocate valuable shelf space for it in a permanent way. Though obviously, if you've had a hankering for a book about mind-controlling, carnivorous plants, you'll want to run, not walk, to pick this one up.