The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.
The Only Road was much less preachy and heavy-handed than I thought it would be Instead, Diaz tells a compelling story of two children fleeing their town in Guatemala after being targeted by the local gang. Their destination is, of course, the United States, where Jaime’s brother lives. They must travel through the security-heavy borders of Mexico and the US, hide from gangs and immigration officers, and try not to lose each other.
Diaz gives a chilling picture of what it is like to travel through Mexico in secret. Apparently, Mexico is not very fond of other Central or South American countries, and of course the US heavily patrols its borders, so Jaime and Angela must fake their way through a bus ride, almost die in a closed boxcar of a train, scrape up enough money to pay a coyote to take them across the Rio Grande, and then safely contact Jaime’s brother. And Diaz communicated all of this without ramming her ideas of immigration down the reader’s throat. Instead, she uses the story to paint the picture, a much subtler approach that I appreciate.
The only thing I struggled with in the book was the appearance and disappearance of Jaime and Angela’s traveling companions, as well as the abrupt, almost-too-happy ending. I do understand that it’s likely that traveling companions will leave, eventually, but it seems to go against the book a bit—though of course Diaz is perhaps just emphasizing the separation of friends at certain points. The ending, too, is almost too happy, where Jaime, Angela, and Tomas drive off into the sunrise and nothing else is offered regarding Jaime’s and Angela’s status as illegal immigrants. Perhaps it’s because this book is for children that Diaz decided to end it as she did.
The Only Road pleasantly surprised me, and overall, despite a few wobbles, it offers a compelling story about the reasons someone might flee their home and head for a better life in a new country. It also shows lots about Central American and South American culture, such as Mexico’s heavy security in regards to immigration and the people’s dislike of outsiders. It was interesting to read about, and I appreciated it that Diaz went for subtlety rather than outspokenness.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Violence, death, disturbing images
Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2tmwAkI
Sunny, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2018 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Patina.
I enjoyed the first two Track books, Ghost and Patina, but Sunny is the weakest one so far. It’s messy and all-over-the-place, and I get that it’s supposed to be inside of Sunny’s head, but half the time he’s just making random noises and talking about random things. Maybe that’s appealing to some, but not to me.
There’s a lack of depth to the book, too, that seems out of place, especially when comparing it to the previous two books. There’s some sad stuff going on, but there’s really not that much to the book at all. Half of it is just Sunny making sound effects and thinking about dancing. Yes—those parts of the book really bothered me! The scenes with Sunny and his dad were good, and the handling of all the unspoken (and spoken) expectations that Sunny is trying to fill, when he also wants to strike out on his own, were good. But I like tightly-focused, tightly-plotted books, and Sunny was just too stream-of-consciousness for me.
I also am growing very irritated of Reynolds’s penchant to ending the books right in the middle of a track meet (and then starting the next book with the resolution of that track meet). It’s hokey, and doesn’t really accomplish much. There’s no sense of closure or growth by cutting off the book right in the character’s shining moment. Instead, we’re left to wonder “Did he do it?” and there’s no rush of victory that is so great to feel when reading a book that’s so character-focused as this one.
I think I might still get the last track book, just to finish the series, but Sunny was ultimately a disappointment. Too random, too noisy, and just not my cup of tea.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GFdP43
The Tenth Power, by Kate Constable, was published in 2005 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Waterless Sea.
It’s always bittersweet to read the ending to books you’ve enjoyed. There’s happiness with the characters and where they are (hopefully), there’s sadness that the series is over, there’s lingering feelings of shock and tension from the plot. And, for me, there’s sometimes also a feeling of disgruntlement that the ending isn’t as perfect as it “could have been,” a vague sense that the book let me down somehow.
I got that feeling a little bit with The Tenth Power. Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was literally all I could think about during work for two whole days. I had to drag myself away from it in the morning. Constable’s enchanting prose, Calwyn’s struggles and triumphs, her relationship with Darrow, the twists and turns of the plot—all of these things worked together to create a great finish, one that’s satisfying and beautiful (if not bittersweet). The way this trilogy gripped me is still surprising to me. I don’t get entranced by books very often. The most recent ones I can think of are The Queen’s Thief books, which hold a different sort of enchantment to them. Yet something about Constable’s prose, the world, and especially the characters grabbed me from the get-go.
Maybe it’s because Calwyn is such a fallible protagonist. She makes plenty of mistakes in this book. She gets angry and arrogant, and there’s a part in the middle of the book where things get almost too crazy and there’s a bewitching atmosphere to everything that happens, and despite all her power and all she accomplishes, Calwyn still reads as totally human. And I’m glad of that because the middle-to-last third of the book is so strange that without Calwyn as an anchor, I probably would have been much more dissatisfied.
The book isn’t perfect. There’s that science-fiction-y, ships-from-space bit that doesn’t quite fit in the world. There are several character revelations that don’t fit well, either, but they at least work better than what happens with Calwyn and Samis (seriously…what was that?). But I loved the idea of the Tenth Power (words! And then it hits you that no one has read or written anything in the entire series), and Calwyn and Darrow are still my favorite. Bobbles aside, I haven’t enjoyed a trilogy as much as I enjoyed Constable’s in a long time.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2tgXxqa
Disclaimer: The Seamstress, by Allison Pittman, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
My rating: 4/5
The Seamstress was inspired by the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, where a seamstress meets up with That Guy (to avoid spoilers) and talks to him briefly before they are both beheaded. The Seamstress is basically the story of that seamstress, detailing her life and circumstances leading up to and during the French Revolution.
Pittman says she spoils about 50% of A Tale of Two Cities, but I didn’t see it. Of course, I read Dickens’ novel in high school, so my memory of the book is not great. The Seamstress is much more like a historical fiction set during the French Revolution than a spin-off of A Tale of Two Cities, and, in fact, the ending of the novel, where Pittman most clearly references TTC, is the weakest, as Pittman clearly borrowed dialogue from Dickens’ novel, where it stands out like a sore thumb because Pittman doesn’t write like Dickens.
To be honest, I thought the story about the seamstress, Renee, was the weakest of the novel. The story involving Renee’s cousin, Laurette, was the best part. That was a story laden with forgiveness and grace, of a young woman’s desperate attempts to find love and the way she feels when those attempts give her nothing but emptiness and shame. I normally don’t like perfect men, but Gagnon is exactly the character he needed to be to temper Laurette’s wildness. Laurette’s story is the reason I gave this book such a high rating—and Renee’s story is the reason why it didn’t get higher.
Pittman utilizes the dreaded “first-person, third-person” switch: Renee’s story is in 1st person, and Laurette’s in 3rd. I see no reason why it had to be that way, and it’s jarring and frustrating to keep switching back and forth. And compared to Laurette’s beautiful story, Renee’s is timid and historically thin (Pittman admits she painted an idealistic portrait of Marie Antoinette); Renee herself is given paper-thin motivations for her actions and most of the time is simply a passive observer to what’s happening around her. And the reason Pittman gives for her arrest leading up to her death sentence is laughably unrealistic—plot convenience shines throughout that particular portion.
Yet, the power of the setting and Laurette’s story manage to offset and overshadow many of the flaws of Renee’s story, giving a lush, detailed look at the French countryside and the path leading to the French Revolution. The stark contrast between Renee’s life at court and Laurette’s life in the country helps paint the strong divide between rich and poor that was the catalyst in the Revolution’s start. And Renee’s arrest, imprisonment, and execution helps show the bloodthirsty rage that fueled the Revolution and kept the guillotine dropping.
It’s definitely not perfect, but Laurette’s story alone makes The Seamstress worth a read.
Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction
You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2SznyiA
The Burning, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2004 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Shattering.
The Burning is the last of the six-book fleck/Pure Ones/St. Aggie’s arc before Lasky takes the series into a different direction. As a last book, it wraps everything up as it’s supposed to: there’s tension and uncertainty to ramp the tension up before the final battle, the villains are defeated, and great acts of bravery are performed by multiple characters.
Yet there is still much left to be desired with this “closing” of the first Soren arc (for he comes back later on in the series). The time jumps are bothersome, leaving great swathes of character’s actions to be explained in commentary or as an afterthought later on. This includes Gylfie and Otulissa leaving the Glauxian Brother’s Retreat, Soren’s insistence on not teaching the St. Aggie’s owls to fight, and Gylfie’s appeal to the Northern owls parliament. In fact, Gylfie’s entire courageous arc, where she escapes from pirates and brings an army to help out the Guardians at just the right moment, is entirely overshadowed by a brand-new viewpoint character, and her most amazing moment is never even seen, though we get some of its effect later on when she meets back up with Soren at the battle.
In addition to those odd jumps, Lasky decides to have the battle between Kludd and Soren end in a rather strange way, though at least that decision makes more sense than the random jumps in time. We get a fight between Soren and his brother, but the end result is strangely anticlimactic and unsatisfying. In fact, it seems to have been done purposefully to preserve Soren’s purity than for any other reason. Or perhaps it was to show how different Soren is from his brother—though that, of course, isn’t a necessary distinction to make since we already know that Soren is far and away the better owl.
Anyway, despite my grumblings, I still thought The Burning was a good end. It wraps up the Pure Ones arc very neatly, and it leaves room for some more growth to the series with the very brief reveal at the end with Nyra. The missteps and the strange choices are probably due to the fact that the last couple of books were published in the same year, so Lasky likely didn’t have a lot of time to really think about the choices she was making.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Fantasy
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2BlVDst
Around the beginning of each month, I’ll take a look back at the books I read from last month. Since most of the book reviews I post on this blog are from books I read months ago, this gives all my readers a good opportunity to see what I’ve been recently reading, as well as how my reading goals are going!
As a side note, you can see every book I am currently reading on both the Goodreads sidebar on this blog as well as on my Goodreads profile.
Books read in January: 20
Sometimes I really don’t know how I manage to read so many books per month.
Newbery Medal Winners: 4 (80/96 total)
Dear America: 2
Other Reading Stats:
*These stats are separate from goals (so, for example, even though Newbery Medal winners count as children’s books, I do not include them in my children’s stats) and from each category (rereads will not count in their respective genres)
Adult fantasy: 2 (I am counting the volume as 1 book, despite the fact that it contained 2 books)
Adult fiction: 3
Middle Grade: 2
Young Adult: 2
Publisher Copies (or Christian fiction): 0