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The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox has a fantastic set up for either a work of historical fiction or a fantasy novel. Intriguingly, it is both! Katherine, Robbie and Amelie Bateson live in London with their parents and their Great-Aunt Margaret. As the bombing of the city increases, the Batesons take the first good opportunity to get their children to safety. In this case, it is Rookskill Castle in remote Scotland. The owner of the castle is Aunt Margaret's cousin, Gregor, the eleventh Earl of Craig. Recently married, the Earl is in need of money and also has recently taken ill. His new wife has converted the castle into a boarding school for a small number of evacuees. But, from the moment they arrive, Kat knows that there is something very wrong at Rookskill Castle.
While there are murmurs of a German spy hiding somewhere in the castle early on in the novel, another, more compelling story unfolds, starting in 1746. Lenore is the lady of Rookskill Castle but, unable to produce an heir for the lord, she fears for her life. On the edge of the forest in a crumbling hut, a magister offers Lenore hope - a charm for her chatelaine that will produce an heir. Over almost three hundred years, the Lady and her charmed children have existed on the outskirts of the castle grounds, the magister taking a part of the Lady with every new charm and replacing it with a clockwork mechanism that can only be seen in the moonlight. With the twelfth charmed child, the Lady, now called Eleanor, will have a power and security that she has longed for since her grim, painful childhood centuries ago.
Kat, eager to learn her father's trade - clock repair (not spying, as he now works for M16) is a practical child and skeptical of the dubious magic dotty Aunt Margaret promises when she gives Kat her own chatelaine before the children leave for Scotland. But, as Kat and her siblings, along with Peter Williams, an American transplant, suffer confusion, crankiness, and punishments as they get in the way of Lady Eleanor's plans, she begins to believe in the magic her aunt spoke of. With the instructors and staff at the castle under a spell, it is up to Kat to battle the Lady and rescue the souls of her friends and siblings.
I enjoyed this book, but I wished it had been a little bit more, despite being 400 pages long. Reading the blurb for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, I was very excited. Yet, it didn't come together quite the way I had hoped it would. Perhaps because I had recently read and been very impressed and moved by The War that Saved My Life (and watched a few too many BBC shows set during the war, like The Bletchly Circle and Land Girls) I expected more from the possible German spy plot, however, from the start, Fox makes it clear that Lady Lenore is looking to fill out her chatelaine and collect enough souls to continue living forever, making the spy subplot less than relevant. In fact, it is almost an aside when, near the end of the story, one of the instructors is revealed to be a German spy. Fox introduces a wireless, a father who is a spy and even an Enigma Machine, but they really don't contribute much to the plot. Neither do the two instructors who, 200 pages into the novel reveal that they are spies working for a special forces unit researching magical artifacts, the occult and paranormal experiences, especially anything that the Nazis might use to gain power. This plot thread takes a (far) back seat to the story of Lady Lenore, but I think it could have added so much more tension and excitement to the plot. I also think that developing and deepening twelve-year-old Kat's character could have added so much to the story. She is so cookie-cutter, stereotypical at the start - dutiful big sister, dutiful daughter, a little bit of a crush on Peter and she doesn't really change much over the course of the novel, even if she does come to believe in Aunt Margaret's magic. Like the special forces spies who show up half way through the novel, Kat's genius math skills show up and allow her, through the tireless working of algorithms, to break the German code. The elements of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle are all wonderfully fascinating and together they make for a great story. For me, though, the story telling doesn't live up to the story elements.
Source: Review Copy
Two years ago I enthusiastically, excitedly reviewed The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson, saying that it was the best fantasy novel I had read in quite a while. I also speculated about a sequel, hoping to learn more about the curious artifacts that arrive in the world of Solace by way of dangerous meteor storms. With The Secrets of Solace, Johnson delivers a novel that, while not a sequel to The Mark of the Dragonfly, is set in the same world and, if possible, even better than the first. And, best of all, The Secrets of Solace is takes place in the Archivists' Strongholds, where the artifacts are taken to be studied and experimented with. In the eight years since I began my blog, and in the fifteen years before that while working as a children's bookseller, I read a lot of middle grade fantasy novels, especially when the genre exploded after the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 1997. However, I hit a saturation point where, while the books were good and satisfied my love of traveling to other, magical worlds, they did not necessarily stand out or leave a mark on my memory. Johnson's novels stand out and are very memorable. She is a masterful world builder and her stories are seamless. Her characters are compelling, and her main characters are strong, curious, intelligent girls who are good with machines. If you are feeling a little burned out on middle grade fantasy novels, Johnson's books are the perfect palette cleansers.
The main character in The Secrets of Solace is Lina Winterbock, an orphan living in Ortana. Ortana is one of the three archivists' strongholds that abut the Hiterian Mountains, beyond which are uncharted lands. Lina is a junior apprentice to Zara, a teacher and member of the archivists' ruling council. The ruling council has been especially busy lately with the flood of refugees escaping the escalating war between the Merrow Kingdom and the Dragonfly Territories, giving Lina lots of time on her own. Lina thinks of herself as a new breed of archivist, an "explorer archivist." She has spent so much time crawling through the air ducts and tunnels that thread throughout the mountain that she has been able to map them all as well as discover long lost workshops, overhear secrets and more. As Lina says of herself, she has been "hiding and listening for a long time."
In fact, Lina has discovered a long lost workroom that was partially obscured by one of the frequent cave ins that happen on the mountain. Inside is an aircraft, something that the king of the Dragonfly Territories has been working on creating, something that would allow the inhabitants of Solace to explore uncharted lands. After twisting through the museum-like rooms and moss covered corridors of Ortana, Johnson's story takes off like a rocket when Lina encounters young Prince Ozben, the "spare heir" to the throne of the Merrow Kingdom. Ozben has been secreted away to Ortana and is in hiding from assassins. Together the two work to stay a step ahead of the assassins and the archivists who are growing weary of Lina's mishaps and suspicious of her behavior. Johnson includes an especially magical twist in the form of the aircraft, while also ramping up the dangers and complexities of impending war.
The Secrets of Solace was hard for me to put down, something that happens less frequently than I would like these days. Johnson does something that I especially appreciated in this novel, something that almost never happens in a middle grade fantasy: the hero of the story confesses to an adult who can help. I realize that it makes for good tension, but I often find myself feeling frustrated with characters in fantasy and adventure books who find themselves in deep and, for whatever fabricated (or real-ish) situation, do not turn to an adult for help. I think it is the mark of a truly good writer to be able to craft a plot that allows the main character to turn to an adult for help and continue on with a suspenseful climax to the story, which is exactly what Johnson does in The Secrets of Solace.
Source: Review Copy
Henry Cole is the author and illustrator of many picture books and the superb, generously illustrated novel A Nest for Celeste that features a young John Audubon as a character. Now, three years later, Cole is back with another illustrated novel, Brambleheart: A Story About Finding Treasure and the Unexpected Magic of Friendship.
The trim size of Brambleheart, small and almost square, is perfectly suited for the story inside, and there is an illustration on almost every page. And it is completely engaging - I read it in one sitting. Brambleheart feels a little familiar at the start, but it takes an unexpected and exciting turn almost a quarter of the way in. Twig lives on the Hill, a jumble of detritus that provides homes for the rodents and small animals who live there as well as parts for their creations. Young Twig attends classes where his skill (or lack thereof) will determine his future career, a career that will be bestowed on him at the Naming Ceremony. Unfortunately, it seems that every class is a challenge for Twig. In the Weaving Burrow, Professor Fern, a beaver, teaches knot tying. The Snape-like Professor Burdock teaches Metal Craft, where his nephew, Basil, is the star pupil, despite Twig's best friend, Lily, who seems to excel at everything she touches. Things take a very big turn for the worse when Twig almost burns down Professor Dunlin's welding class. Just when it looks like he is doomed to the lowliest position of Errand Runner, Twig decides to run away and this is where the story takes off.
Twig heads past the boundaries of the Hill and into the surrounding forest where he finds something that changes his life - an egg. The contents of this egg, seen in the illustration below, created all kinds of problems and opportunities for Twig. He discovers, with the help of the baby dragon, that his is a gifted welder and metal worker. But, it's hard to keep a baby dragon hidden - and fed - for long and soon questions are being asked. And, it seems, that Char, short for Charcoal, a name given to the dragon by Lily, is growing sicker by the day. The two decide that Char needs to return to the place where Twig found the egg and the adventure - and the next book - begin!
Source: Review Copy
Priness Magnolia, Frimplepants, the Princess in Black and Blacky are back! And all my favorite things are in one place again - princesses, unicorns, masked avengers, and sumptuous feasts! In book three, we find Princess Magnolia and Frimplepants headed to brunch in the village with Princess Sneezewort. In anticipation of the soft rolls, cheesy omelets and "heaping platters of sugar-dusted doughnuts," the two have skipped breakfast. Just when the village is in sight, Princess Magnolia's glitter-stone ring rang - the monster alarm!
The Princess and her pony zip into a secret cave to become their super selves, the Princess in Black and her steed, Blacky, ready to fight monsters. And what monsters have emerged from the monster hole this time? A horde of hungry bunnies! Pham does an excellent job making these little purple puffballs cute and potentially menacing at the same time. These bunnies have grown tired of Monster Land, having nibbled all the monster fur, toe-nail clippings and lizard scales in sight. They have discovered the fresh green grass of the goat pastures and are not looking back!
At first, the Princess in Black is charmed by the hungry horde of bunnies, but when they eat up all the grass, a nearby tree and then begin nibbling on Blacky's tail, she knows she must pull out her best Princess in Black moves to take them on.
It's touch and go for a while, but the Princess in Black always prevails! Sadly, she and Blacky arrive at the café just a hair too late for brunch - but not too late for brunch with Princess Sneezewort!
Don't miss the first two books
in this fantastic series!
Source: Review Copy
Mabel Jones and the Forbidden City is the second book in Will Mabbitt and by Ross Collins's superb new series and, if possible, it's even better than the first, The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones. In the first book, Mabbitt introduced our hero who is conscripted into the life of a pirate because she was caught doing THE DEED (picking her nose and eating it) and allowed to stay (despite being a girl) because she can read. The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones is a panoramic sweeping story packed with richly detailed and very imaginative characters and places. With Mabel Jones and the Forbidden City, the story becomes more personal and urgent for Mabel. When we see Mabel again, she is in her room, scratching her armpit and staring at a "funny-looking thing, all fat and helpless. Like a beetle grub. Kind of slimy, but kind of cute, too." It's Mabel's baby sister Maggie, and mere minutes after this sweet scene of sibling love, Maggie is taken out of her room by a nasty tasting, powerful creeping vine. Mabel grabs on to the last bit of the disappearing vine and finds herself in a wardrobe in another time and place - the Noo World, specifically, the City of Dreams, a sort of post-apocalyptic, dangerous civilization built upon the remains of New York City.
Mabel in in America - and once again having an adventure in her pajamas, and this time bunny slippers as well. Once she gets her bearings, she heads off to the dwelling of Mr. Habib, a beak-collecting fortune teller who might be able to tell her where to find Maggie. Mable almost gets her nose snipped off to add to the collection, but she does get a lead and soon she in afloat again. This time, she has secured a position on a little paddle steamer, the Brown Trout, upon which she will be cruising down the Great Murky River to the Forbidden City, rumored to be under the thrall of a wicked sorceress. This expedition is being headed (and funded) by Professor Carruthers Badger-Badger, Phd and Timothy Speke, an otter who enjoys sketching and loves his damson jam. They are journeying to the Forbidden City to find a diamond the size of a gorilla's fist, seen in a faded advertisement from a magazine.
Mabel Jones and the Forbidden City finds the return of old friends, some of whom are now enemies, a flock of zombified egrets under the sway of the Witch Queen, a sunken high school full of skeleton students and the Scuttling Death, rival adventurer Sir Gideon Scapegrace and an epic climactic scene that will have you on the very edge of your seat as Mable prepares to make a huge sacrifice.
Not to fear, there will be another book in the Mabel Jones series! Without giving too much away, Mabel Jones and the Forbidden City ends with her staring out over the vast wasteland that was once New York City, picking her nose and wondering what happened to all the "hoomans."
The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones
A few of the many books by Ross Collins!
Source: Review Copy
Although his is a prolific and much loved author, I had not read any of Dan Gutman's books until my son and I started reading The Genius Files together in 2014. We were both immediately hooked by Gutman's sense of humor and I was especially impressed with the amount of fascinating factual information he packed into his books. Taking a cross country trip from California to Washington D.C. in a motorhome with their parents, twins Coke and Pepsi (of course there is a funny, interesting story behind their names) see some of the stranger (real) sites in the U.S., like the Pez Museum, the world's largest ball of twin and the House on the Rock in Wisconsin. With his new series, Flashback Four, Gutman brings the same sense of humor and way with the fact to this story of four twelve-year-olds from Boston who get the chance to travel through time, with great cover art by Scott Brundage. For years I have wondered why no one has taken the formula of the Magic Tree House books and applied it to middle grade novels, which is what I think Gutman is brilliantly doing here.
Gutman begins Flashback Four: The Lincoln Project with and introduction that gives readers a peek at the climax of the book. It's Thursday, November 19, 1863 and Abraham Lincoln is delivering the Gettysburg Address. In the crowd, a boy holds a small device in his hand, "silvery and metallic, it's small enough to fit in one hand, but powerful enough to change every history book ever written." Chapter one introduces the four main characters, David, Luke, Isabel and Julia, each of whom receive a mysterious yellow envelope that contains an invitation to a meeting with the CEO of the Pasture Company and four crisp five dollar bills. Assembled in the office of Chris Zandergoth, the four are a bit surprised when the CEO turns out to be a woman. Gutman writes, "Although we've come a long way in the last fifty years, here in the twenty-first century, most of us still assume that any rich, powerful person is a man." And the assumption is an accurate one: as of this writing, there are only 23 women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, making up a whopping 4.6%. But, that's pretty heavy for a kid's book. And hopefully Gutman and his very cool character Chris Zandergoth, a prodigy who dropped out of Stanford to start Findamate, helping people find their "love match" by hacking into the computers of the NSA, will inspire young readers to break through the glass ceiling.
Julia, Isabel, David and Luke learn all this about Zandergoth when they Google her while she is, strategically, in the bathroom. Returning, she tells the kids, "I figured that letting you kids do a little research would be a lot easier than telling you my own boring life story." She goes on to tell them that she has chosen them very carefully using her powerful software algorithms. This revelation is followed by my favorite scene in the book during which Gutman brilliantly uses his characters to directly address a somewhat cynical observation I had made. David somewhat sneeringly responds, "Two boys. Two girls. I guess you picked me because you needed a black kid?" Isabel chimes in with, "I suppose I'm the token Hispanic?" Luke caps it by saying, "What, no Asian? How do you expect to win Multicultural Humanitarian of the Year?" Miss Z laughs it off, telling the four that she matched them up for their, "compatibility, not your ethnicity." Diversity in kid's books is a front burner issue these days, especially with Matt de la Peña becoming the first Latino to win the Newbery Medal for his picture book Last Stop on Market Street. de la Peña has said that this book is representative of his new approach to featuring diverse characters in his books, where he strives to continue to feature diverse characters but "now I try to place them in stories that have nothing to do with diversity, not overtly anyway." Not only is that what Gutman is doing here, but he is also letting us know that he is doing it in a very funny way that I think is great.
Miss Z., who has a passion for photography, a love of history and a great collection of photos from important moments in time, has enlisted the four kids to travel back in time and take pictures of monumental moments using a very smart smartboard, known as the Board, that she and a team worked years to perfect. The first assignment for the Flasback Four, as they name themselves: travel back to the Gettysburg Address and take a picture of Lincoln as he delivers it. This is not as easy as it sounds since the speech lasted less than three minutes. And, understandably, David has some serious concerns as an African American, despite the fact that he will be traveling to the Free North, saying, "I saw that movie Twelve Years a Slave. That guy was in New York when he got kidnapped. I'm not about to get myself sold into slavery just to take a picture." Miss Z. reassures him and prepares the kids for their trip, giving them a list of expression from the era and, of course, clothes. She also gives them a Text Through Time device that looks a lot like a smartphone and allows the kids to communicate with Miss Z and a snazzy new Nikon camera. Everything should go swimmingly.
But it doesn't. Miss Z. makes a typo and sends the Flashback Four back in time a day early. Instead of spending a couple of hours in 1863 they now have to spend twenty-four. Then there is the problem of Julia, who seems to be a bit of a kleptomaniac who is obsessed with making money, even though her family is wealthy. She manages to sneak into the home of David Wills, the man responsible for creating a cemetery honoring Union soldiers who died in the Battle of Gettysburg, and the place where Lincoln spent the night before the address. Luke, David and Isabel stop her from stealing Lincoln's draft of the speech, but not before they encounter Tad Lincoln and his toy gun.
I learned quite a bit reading Flashback Four: The Lincoln Project, and not just boring stuff like dates and places. At one point, the kids end up in jail next to the town drunk who just happened to be one of the civilians who tried to bury the dead after the battle. He tells the kids of the gruesome facts of the battle, the amputations, and worse. Gutman includes a "Facts & Fictions" at the end of the book where he sheds more light on interesting aspects of the book and fesses up about some liberties he took. Does the Flashback Four get the picture? Do they make it back to Boston safely? And where are they headed next? I can't wait to find out!
Source: Review Copy
It's taken me a while to warm up to Kate DiCamillo, and I still haven't read her most popular books, Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux. But I do like her weird sense of humor and the curious characters she created in books like the Mercy Watson series, which I reviewed here in 2010. The Bink & Gollie trilogy, which she created with Alison McGhee and Tony Fucile, as an absolute
Last year I gleefully reviewed The Yeti Files: Meet the Bigfeet by Kevin Sherry. I am so thrilled to be reviewing Monsters on the Run, the second book in what I hope is a long running series about all kinds of cryptids!
Besides the fact that The Yeti Files: Meet the Bigfeet taught me the word "cryptid," which I work into conversations whenever I can now, I adore this book for its humor,
Books like The Marvels by Brian Selznick are why I read and books like The Marvels what keep me reading, in the hopes of recreating the magical experience of being completely immersed in another world, another time. If you have read The Invention of Hugo Cabret then you know the special gift and pleasure you are in for when you hold this gorgeous 672 page tome in your hands and prepare
The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon is rich with promise. The pages of this beautiful book are thick and creamy. Gannon, a graduate of Parsons School of Design, illustrates The Doldrums with characters and a palette that are ethereal, eccentric and inviting. The hero of The Doldrums, which will be followed by a sequel, is Archer B. Helmsley, one of the thousands of children born every day who
Last year I reviewed and loved Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale and superbly illustrated by LeUeyn Pham and I am so excited to be reviewing the second book in the series a year later, The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party. The way I see it, with Princess Magnolia, the Hales and Pham have created a character and series that hits all my literary sweet spots: a high interest chapter book that is a perfect bridge between leveled readers and chapter books, a character who is all things - a princess with her own unicorn and a secret double life fighting monsters. Magnolia can go from wearing a pouffy pink gown and tiara while having tea with the Duchess Wigtower to a black booted, masked and caped crusader with a scepter that turns into a staff for battle and Pham brings her to life with vivid, action filled panache. Best of all, the Princess in Black books are sweet and playful and not the least bit saccharine.
In The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party, Magnolia is preparing for her birthday party and the eleven princesses (and their steeds) who will be attending the party. Just as they begin to arrive, Magnolia's "glitter-stone ring rang." Monsters are leaving Monster Land, Duff the goat boy's flock is in danger and the Princess in Black needs to perform her signature moves, like the Tiara Trip and the Tentacle Tangle, on them to make everything right with the world again.
Just when Magnolia thinks she can get back to her guests, the party games, the cake and the presents, her glitter-stone ring goes off again. And again. Magnolia juggles her responsibilities admirably. Until she doesn't. My favorite part of The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party are the princesses themselves. Pham's illustrations of Princess Sneezewort, Princess Zinnia, Princess Honeysuckle, Princess Hyacinth, Princess Apple Blossom, Princess Bluebell, Princess Euphoria, Princess Tulip, Princess Crocus, Princess Snapdragon, and Princess Jasmine bring to mind an updated rendering of the singing dolls from the It's a Small World ride at Disneyland, in the best way possible, without the singing. I couldn't stop poring over the pages, taking in all the details. Now, I need to get this books onto the shelves of my library because students have been asking for it for weeks!
Coming February 2016!!!
Source: Review Copy
A couple of years ago, Rainbow Rowell gutted me with her YA novel, Eleanor & Park, a powerful story of a relationship between outsiders growing up in Nebraska in the 1980s. Her next YA novel (Rowell also writes for adults, Attachments and Landline, both of which I've read but have not reviewed. Adults can be kind of boring) Fangirl was equally amazing and opened a window on (for adults, anyway) the world of fan fiction and "shipping." With Carry On, Rowell 's main character is Simon Snow, a "fictional fictional character," as she refers to him in her Author's Note, hero of his own series of Harry Potter-esque novels and subject of the fan fiction created by Cath, the main character in Fangirl. It probably sounds a little confusing if you haven't read Fangirl and/or know nothing about fan fiction. It's probably best if you dive into Carry On with dim-ish memories of Fangirl and almost no memories of Harry Potter. If, like me, you have pretty vivid memories of both, things could get tangled in your head and you just might start asking yourself questions like the one Rowell addresses on her website: did she write Carry On as Gemma T. Leslie, fictional author of the fictional eight-book-children's adventure series, did she write as Cath, the fanfic writing star of Fangirl, or did she write as Rainbow Rowell? Her answer is this, "I'm writing as me. . . I wanted to explore what I could do with this world and these characters. So, even though I'm writing a book that was inspired by fictional fanfiction of a fictional series . . . I think what I'm writing now is canon." If you are still confused, my best advice to you is this: keep calm and read on. For me, Carry On was most enjoyable when I was reading it for what it was - Rowell taking these two compelling characters, Simon and Baz, and letting them work things out over the course of their final year at Watford, a school for humans and other magical creatures. In Heather Schwedel's review, "Rainbow Rowell's New Book Is a Harry Potter Rip-Off That Proves How Great Fan Fiction Can Be," she writes, the "achievement of Carry On is that, even with a template more or less designed by someone else, Rowell has written a book that conjures Rowling-esque magic just as effectively as J.K. Rowling herself - and yet still feels like something new." While I admit to struggling, Rowell definitely does create something new in Carry On. A couple of years ago I reviewed the first book in Lev Grossman's trilogy, The Magicians because I was deeply interested in seeing what an author could do with the concept of a school for magicians when the students were on the verge of adulthood. Grossman is a phenomenal writer and the characters and world he created have stayed with me, but my overall take-away was that the one defining factor that makes a book about magicians for adults is the presence of overwhelming depression and hopelessness felt by the characters. Grossman's book had a level of sadness that reminded me of why I stopped reading adult novels almost entirely. Rowell's books for adults, while presenting genuinely complex struggles, just don't get as deeply sad and this is true in Carry On as well.
This isn't to imply in any way that the issues Simon and Baz grapple with in Carry On are superficial. In fact, I found Simon's storyline, his origin story and the climactic resolution, the most compelling, creative and philosophical aspect of Carry On. Rowell uses magical elements and circumstances to create tension between Simon and Baz, their relationship seamlessly flipping from antagonistic to amorous more than half way into the novel. Perhaps because I couldn't entirely quiet the Harry Potter voices in my head, waiting for this moment to arrive felt nearly interminable. But, once it did arrive (we all knew it would happen, right? And not just because Cath wrote it in her fanfic?) the pace and plot of Carry On poured out like a flood and I couldn't put the book down. While Rowell does a fine job establishing the wizarding world, the most rewarding moments in Carry On are the moments of personal interaction between the four main characters. Adults are off the page most of the time, even though, as in Harry Potter, it is the children dealing with the messes made by the adults. Rowell's take on the classicism of the wizarding world and the desire for revolution amongst the underrepresented and discriminated against magicians feels a little more American than Rowling's, despite the fact that Rowell has set Carry On squarely in England. And, knowing that Rowell is an American writing in a British voice, I sometimes found myself feeling that occasional Briticisms rang false. That said, Rowell did a superb job with her wizarding swears, my favorite being, "Nicks and Slick," uttered by Phoebe. "Crowley" and "Chomsky" were other swears that got me grinning. "Chomsky," especially, as Rowell's very cool rules for spells - words gain meaning through repeated use, therefore idioms and other phrases frequently uttered by a certain culture, are powerful spells when uttered (along with use of a wand) by magicians. Be Our Guest, Up, Up and Away, As You Were, and Scooby-Scooby Do, Where Are You? are just a few that are used to varying degrees of success over the course of Carry On.
Everyone who loves Rainbow Rowell should and will read Carry On. For those who aren't familiar with her works, Carry On could be a pretty cool introduction to her work. It almost makes me wish that I could start with Carry On and read backwards, looking to see if the magic - the powerful relationships and moving characters - that made me fall in love with her work the first time I read Eleanor & Park works both ways.
Rebecca Stead is the author of four books, two of which, Liar & Spy and the Newbery Medal winner, When You Reach Me, I have reviewed here. When You Reach Me is a book that will stay with me the rest of my life. I shy away from making Top 5 or Top 10 lists, but I know that every time I see the cover for this book I will feel a thud of emotion and recall what a powerful experience reading that book was. And I know that I will have the same experience in the future after reading Stead's new novel, Goodbye Stranger. Stead is a gifted writer and a masterful storyteller. She reminds me of one of the few novelists for adults I consistently read and always find gratifying, Kate Morton. Morton's novels, which are rich with compelling characters, weave stories from the past and present, revealing the connection between the two at the end of the story and always delivering an emotional punch, one that has made me gasp out loud before. While Morton - and Stead's - novels are anything but formulaic, they both employ similar formulas for storytelling that keep me engaged and guessing. Having read so many books, I can often see a plot twist pages in advance (and I am no fun to watch movies with) but I never see coming the surprises and rewards Stead (and Morton) always have in store.
Of course, this also makes writing a review a challenge. Goodbye, Stranger divides page time between Bridge, Sherm and an unknown, first person narrator. Bridge and Sherm's stories unfold at the same time, but the unknown narrator's story takes place on Valentine's Day, with Bridge and Sherm's storylines catching up by the end of the novel. Stead has the incredible ability to write a relatively short book that packs an amazing amount of detail and layers into the story. Bridget Barsamian is a seventh grader who is part of a tight trio of friends who have agreed never to fight and never to end their friendship after one of the three experiences the end of her parent's marriage. Bridge is also the survivor of a traumatic accident that took four surgeries and a year of recovery. When she was eight, Bridge was rollerskating with Tab, their mothers walking a few yards behind, and, distracted by a VW Bug and her version of the "Punch Buggy" game, she was hit by a car. Except for a recurring nightmare, Bridge is fully recovered, although something a nurse said to her on the day she was discharged changed the way she thought about herself. The nurse told her that she must have been put on earth for a reason, to survive that kind of accident.
Sherm is also in seventh grade. While he is part of Bridge's story, his narrative comes in the form of letters to his grandfather, Nonno Gio. Bridge and Sherm connect when they discover they are both signed up for Tech Crew with Mr. Partridge, who also leads the Banana Splits Book Club for kids of divorced parents. Emily, the third in Bridge's circle of friends, is in the Banana Splits club. She is also a star soccer player and a pretty girl who is hitting puberty harder than her best friends. Then there is Tab, little sister to Celeste and newly radicalized feminist, thanks to her English teacher, Ms. Berman, who prefers to be called "Berperson." Together, the three friends weather the challenges that are part of growing older, growing up and discovering who you are. Stead takes Goodbye, Stranger into the 21st century when she has Em become involved with a popular eighth grade boy who encourages her to text increasingly inappropriate pictures of herself to him. Talking to this boy, Bridge thinks to herself, "Patrick was only one grade above them, but something about him was older, as if he'd crossed a line Bridge couldn't even see yet."
I realize that at this point, I really haven't told you much about Goodbye, Stranger that might lead you to believe it's as amazing as I say it is, and that is in part because of what I can't say about it. But it's also because Stead takes threads of everyday life and weaves them together to make something larger and more meaningful, much like the Georges Seurat painting pointillist painting that was at the center of Liar & Spy. Small details like Hermey, a character from a television show that Bridge and her older brother Jamie quote to each other, Mr. P buying black and white cookies from Nussbaum's for the Banana Splits and a pair of cat ears that become a "comforting presence" add up to something bigger. But it is the emotional complexity of Stead's writing that is most powerful and unforgettable. While talking about the most moving storyline in the book would be too much of a reveal, there is another emotionally mighty moment that comes when a character reflects on a betrayal of trust, asking, "Who is the real you? The person who did something awful, or the one who's horrified by the awful thing you did? Is one part of you allowed to forgive the other?" The character does something I think suspect is universal among adolescent girls - sharing a secret you promised to keep. In Goodbye, Stranger, this sharing is done as a way to reconnect with a friend who has begun distancing herself, a friend who has also begun to reveal a deep, wide streak of meanness. Stead describes the momentary, euphoric connection that this sharing brings and also the anguish, with a clarity that brought me vividly back to my own adolescence and my own missteps.
In the end, as with all her books, Stead tells a story about connections between people, connections that ultimately are about love and compassion. The connections may be tenuous and strained and characters may find themselves alone and hurt, but they always find their way to each other.
Other books by Rebecca Stead:
Another example of masterful storytelling
that will make you gasp:
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The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley came out in January of 2015. In January of 2016 it won the Newbery Honor, the Schneider Family Book Award for the "artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences," and the Odyssey Award for best audio book, with narration by Jayne Entwistle. A couple of months back, Bradley's book came to my attention when I saw it on several end of the year "best of" lists and Newbery prediction lists. After fantasy, historical fiction a very close second favorite genre of mine and without a doubt, The War the Saved My Life is one of the best works of historical fiction I have ever read. In narrator Ada, Bradley has created powerful narrative voice, an unforgettable character and a deeply moving story of survival, both physical and emotional, during WWII England.
Ada is not sure how old she is. She has never been to school, in fact, she has not left the tiny apartment she shares with her mother and younger brother, Jamie, in ages. She is crippled by a club foot and a widowed mother who never wanted to be one. Deeply suspicious, ignorant and filled with anger and hatred, Ada's mother abuses her physically and emotionally, filling her with shame and fear. Ada's only pleasure comes from tending to her little brother Jamie. As he grows older and starts school, his independence leaves her feeling like she should get some of her own. Used to crawling on her hands and knees, Ada slowly, painfully teaches herself to walk. When she learns from Jamie that the children are being evacuated from the city - and that her mother has no intention of letting her go - she sneaks out of the house and joins the evacuees. Upon arriving in Kent, Ada and Jamie, filthy, louse ridden, sick with rickets and impetigo, find themselves unwanted once more. The iron faced Lady Thornton, head of the Women's Voluntary Service, packs the children into her car and takes them to the home of Susan Smith, who refuses to take them, saying she didn't even know there was a war on.
Susan is mourning the loss of her dear friend, Becky, and in her near catatonic state of grief she unthinkingly says that she never wanted children in front of Ada and Jamie. However, Ada catches sight of a pony in the field behind Susan's house and determines to stay. With Susan, Ada faces a new set of challenges, the biggest being trust. Even if she hadn't heard Susan say that she never wanted children, the task of being able to trust Susan would be overwhelming. And this is where Bradley's superior narrative skills shine. With Ada's voice, Bradley conveys the isolation, fear and ignorance that have been her life. So many of the words that Susan says to her mean nothing, from "soup," to "sheets," to "operate," the reader quickly gets a strong sense of disconnect with which Ada moves through the world. This disconnect is expressed most powerfully when Ada is in distress, when her foot hurts or when people are talking about her or touching her. When she was home with her Mam, Ada would retreat, mentally, when the agony of her physical situation - like being locked in a dank cabinet under the sink - was too much to bear. She relies on this relief with Susan, too, imagining herself with Butter, the pony she saw in the field that she teaches herself to ride.
While Ada is an incredible character, Susan Smith is also remarkable. Oxford educated, she herself is familiar with parental disapproval and rejection. Bradley never states it openly, but she weaves enough threads into the story to lead me to believe that Susan and Becky were in love and were ostracized for it. But, Susan exemplifies the motto from the morale boosting poster created during the war, "Keep calm and carry on." In fact, Bradley quotes another poster made by the Ministry of Information to boost morale in The War that Saved My Life. Seeing the poster in town, Susan reads to to Ada, "Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory." "That's stupid, it sounds like we're doing all the work," Ada replies, saying it should be, "Our courage, our cheerfulness, our resolution, will bring us victory." This is one of the first moments where Susan sees through Ada's defenses. Susan clothes, feeds and educates Jamie and Ada, persistently, but never forcefully. While she expresses frustration, and both children cringe or hide at times when they think they have truly angered her, she never hits them or raises her voice to them. Instead, she explains herself when called for and hugs them when words will not do. She somehow understands the depths of Ada's emotional wounds and is patient with her when she breaks down, wrapping her tightly in a blanket and hugging - or even sitting on her during their first air raid.
While Ada and Jamie's mother only appears in the first and last few pages of The War that Saved My Life, her presence is a constant throughout. Her abuse of Ada is sometimes horrific, but also sparsely and effectively employed by Bradley. Witnessing this abuse allows the reader to be patient with the often unlikable Ada and also helps the reader understand her decisions, like the choice not to learn how to read or write, and her reactions, like the catastrophic break down she has when, on Christmas Eve, Susan gives her a handmade, green velvet dress, telling her that she is beautiful when she tries it on. Her mother's words, "You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you with that ugly foot!" run through Ada's head and her roaring screams and panic are more understandable. It is even almost understandable that, throughout most of the novel, Ada believes that all the new things she is learning, from walking to horseback riding to reading and writing, will prove her worth to her mother and make her love her. With this possibility always out there, letting herself get attached to Susan is almost impossible. Then, there is always the knowledge of what her mother has thought of her and how she has treated her. Halfway through the novel, Ada says, "I wanted Mam to be like Susan. I didn't really trust Susan not to be like Mam."
But, Ada does get attached and she does grow stronger, physically and emotionally, over the course of this very rich and detailed story. And, while at first it seems like the war is a far off thing, it does come to Kent in a shattering way. After the Battle of Dunkirk, Kent finds itself overwhelmed by injured and dying soldiers, Ada heading into the village to help where she can. There is even a triumphant moment where, following the government dictate to say something if you see something, Ada not only must assert herself, but also let a prejudiced, condescending adult know that her foot is very far away from her brain, something she has heard Susan say, in order to be taken seriously. As life grows more dangerous in Kent and Susan refuses to send Ada and Jamie away, Ada thinks to herself, "It was hard enough to cope with Susan. How would I ever cope without her?"
I was in tears and sobbing for the last half of The War that Saved My Life, especially the final pages. Bradley delivers a very satisfying ending to a deeply satisfying book, one that makes me want to turn around and read it all over again. I am so grateful that this book won a Newbery honor, among other well deserved awards, because it means that it's likely to fall into the hands of children over and over for decades to come. I can't wait to get a copy for my library - I usually donate books I buy for myself to read to my library, but I am keeping this one! - and see what my students think of it!
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