2012 Newbery Medal: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, was published in 2011 by Farrar Straus Giroux.

Rating: 4/5

Dead End in Norvelt is a really quaint story about a boy growing up in a dying town that was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. While many of the townspeople are convinced that it’s time to move on from the town, Jack, through his friendship with the town historian/medical examiner, learns about the history surrounding the town and its inhabitants.

The book is funny, from Jack’s attempts to stay on the good side of his parents, to his nose bleeding at the slightest provocation, to the strange Miss Volker who lives next door and has to put her hands in wax constantly. The history is great, too, from the “This Day in History” to the obituaries to Jack’s books to his thoughts on events. It’s part historical, part humor, even part murder mystery.

It’s a small-town narrative, but one with a great deal of character and charm. And, apparently, it’s based off of a true story—Jack Gantos is the author, as well as the name of the main character. Maybe that’s why this book is so vibrant and full of life. It’s a great story, and I especially loved the history bits, the obituaries, and Jack’s internal monologues. And it’s interesting how a book that’s so full of death can be as entertaining as it is. “Gothic comedy” is the way one person put it on one of those promotional quotes on the back of the book, and that’s a good way to describe Dead End in Norvelt.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LfonqJ

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Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine

Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine, was published in 2015 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5

I first caught sight of Ink and Bone in the hands of a ten-year-old girl. I remember being attracted by the cover, with the title and “The Great Library” written on it. I thought, “Oh, cute. A middle grade book about a library. I may have to pick that up.”

Oh, boy, was I in for a surprise. This book is definitely not middle-grade—and thus probably far too mature for the ten-year-old girl who I saw reading it—and much more intense and serious than I was expecting. The concept is fascinating—a world where books and knowledge are tightly controlled, where people can access the book, but only through the use of the Library’s technology. They’re not allowed to touch or own real books. To be honest, I’m not sure if Caine was trying to create some sort of analogy with e-books or not, but there’s definitely a lot of attention placed on the value of owning and holding and reading bound books. The main message, though, is definitely about imbalance of power and the abuse of those who hold all the knowledge and who control the access of that knowledge.

I also found the conversation between Jess and someone else about taking down monuments of the past particularly interesting. Jess says something about how he doesn’t like the idea about people remaking the world in an image that they like, rather than an image that reflects truth and history, and that certainly resonated with me.

Interesting concept aside, I found the writing a little too lackluster and mechanical for my tastes. And the plot itself is a bit of a let-down—it takes too long for things to get moving, then once they do, the plot stalls and slows down, then finally gets to where it wants to go three hundred pages later. I will say that the characterization is great, with each character really standing out (at least the six that Caine wants to focus on), but Jess fades a bit in comparison. He’s not a particularly memorable protagonist.

Once I got past my initial surprise, Ink and Bone was quite enjoyable, though I felt there were some problems with pacing, writing, and unfortunately the main character. It’s an interesting take on censorship, the control of knowledge, and where its true value lies.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, kissing, violence, death, LGBTQ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Steampunk

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2PzUqlE

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart, was published in 2013 by Delacorte.

Rating: 3/5

We Were Liars is a suspense/mystery novel. Cadence Sinclair Eastman has forgotten the majority of her fifteenth summer at her family’s private island and the story is about her struggle to put together the pieces of what happened that caused her amnesia.

Though it’s a suspense novel, it really doesn’t read like one. It’s mostly about teenage life, or what Lockhart assumes is teenage life. There’s familial drama, the close-knit adventures of cousins and friends, the confusion as Cadence struggles to remember and people around her refuse to answer her questions, and some odd fairy tale stories scattered throughout. Odd because they seem out of place, though clearly Lockhart believed they were necessary—I just didn’t get it.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t much read like a suspense novel, the ending is quite shocking. I went into it thinking I knew what was happening, then had to change my mind, then got hit with the plot twist at the end. I literally spoke to the book, that’s how shocked I was. Suddenly I wanted to reread the book, or go back quickly at least, to look and see all the clues and foreshadowing. That’s a good ending of a book, if it makes you want to reread it immediately.

We Were Liars wasn’t the edge-of-my-seat, gripping suspense novel I was hoping, but it still pleasantly surprised me, delivering a seemingly innocent plot with a shocking undercurrent. I thought the fairy stories were weird, and the writing was a little too scattered for me to really like, but overall, I liked my first foray into E. Lockhart’s works.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, kissing, death.

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Suspense, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2E8sbsd

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Patina, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2017 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Ghost.

Rating: 3/5

Though Patina is the sequel to Ghost, it’s not really necessary to have read Ghost first, though it does give you added insight to some of the characters. I like the whole idea Reynolds is going for: a book centered on each of the four central characters. If the pattern holds, each one will take place after the one before it. Patina starts where Ghost left off, finishing the race that Reynolds ended Ghost with.

Reynolds ends this book with another race, and yet again ends the book before we see the results. I like it as much as I liked it in Ghost, which is to say, not at all, and I hope it’s not a sign of a pattern.

Anyway, I don’t think I liked Patina as much as I liked GhostGhost tugged at the heartstrings a little bit more, though I liked the sibling relationship in this book and the conversations about Patina’s white aunt. And I liked that Reynolds didn’t go for the standard bully story in school, but simply had complex characters with different motivations, with Patina trying to understand their actions. But Ghost really pulled at me, whereas Patina was good, but not as immediately connecting as I found Ghost.

I do, however, still really like this series and am eager to read the next two books about Sunny and Lu. I’ve seen enough of their characters in these two books that I want to know more about their lives—which, I guess, is part of what Reynolds is trying to do. And I love the uniqueness of each character, and how their lives are so different in so many ways, and yet they can come together with the common interesting of running. Unity in diversity is a great message to deliver.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here:

The Great Railroad Race by Kristiana Gregory

The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve mentioned before that I think Kristiana Gregory’s Dear America books are some of the best in the series. Seeds of Hope and Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie are among my favorites. Gregory seems to understand a balance of slice-of-life and history is needed in order to make these books shine.

That being said, The Great Railroad Race is a bit of a downer. While an important period of time, there just aren’t enough things that happen. It’s certainly very informative, but it’s lacking a little sparkle, in my opinion. There’s too much of Libby blushing about Pete and not enough about the politics and culture of the time. Gregory does include some things about the conflict with the Indians, as well as mentioning the Chinese that worked for Central Pacific, and there’s a great deal of information about what it was like near the railroad. But it’s too much in the background, I guess—it reads too much like information and there’s not enough immersion.

I did like Libby, though, with her matter-of-fact comments. Gregory did a good job of inserting the sort of opinions a girl would put in her diary, such as her thoughts on the President, the Indians, and the culture of the time. I’ve complained before about the protagonist simply being a vehicle for historical information, or for not being present enough in her own story, but there’s none of that here.

The Great Railroad Race definitely isn’t the worst of Dear America, but it’s not really near the best. It’s a good, average book in the series. The historical information is interesting, but not as immersive as others. Libby is a great protagonist, although she spends a little too much time talking about her feelings for Pete. It’s not my favorite of Gregory’s books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2QaoFoo

November 2018 Books

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. There you can also check out the progress of my 2018 Reading Challenge.

Books read in November: 18

What I find the most interesting from doing these statistics is the number of YA books I continually read. Consistently the number is equal or just below the number of children’s and middle grade. I thought I had cut back on YA, but apparently not as much as I thought!

Reading Goals

         

Newbery Medal Winners: 2 (74/96 total)

Dear America: 1

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)

Non-fiction: 1

   

Adult fantasy: 2 (I am counting the volumes as 1 book each, despite the fact that the series is 5 books)

Adult fiction: 1

Rereads: 5

Children’s: 1

Middle Grade: 1

Young Adult: 3

Publisher Copies (or Christian fiction): 1

Favorites:

2009 Newbery Medal: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, was published in 2008 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5

I’m not sure why it took me so long to read The Graveyard Book. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman and like him, though not as much as I like other fantasy writers. The book was delightful; I loved how each chapter told a different story in the life of Bod, and I loved the rich world of the graveyard, with its ghosts, ghouls, and the not-living, but not-dead Silas. Most of all I loved Bod, who went from a young boy struggling to understand and use his powers, to a quiet, confident young man who suffers from a lot of heartache, but still manages to move forward.

I’m perhaps most displeased with what happens to Scarlett, though I suppose what happens with her fit the story. A quiet part of me, probably the romantic part of me, wanted a different ending, but the ending with Bod striking out on his own to see the world is quite fitting.

The villain, Jack, starts out being mysterious and foreboding, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about his appearance at the end of the book. What happens to him is something I guessed almost from the beginning, but there were other revelations that had me scratching my head a little. In addition, the incentive for killing Bod’s family seemed thin, though I suppose, with the way Gaiman built the world, it made sense.

I enjoyed The Graveyard Book, with its lengthy, story-building chapters, rich ghost world, and likeable protagonist. I’m not sure if it compelled me enough to pick up some of Gaiman’s other works for children, but I know now where I can turn if I want a good fantasy.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Supernatural

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2KHhA8U

Beyond the Heather Hills by Melissa Wiley

Beyond the Heather Hills, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 2003 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Down to the Bonny Glen.

Rating: 3/5

Beyond the Heather Hills is the last Martha book, though I don’t believe it was intended to be. From what Wiley has said about her ideas for future books, I could see seeds of them being sown here, especially in the relationship between Martha and Lewis Tucker, and in Martha’s desire to see more beyond her home—yet also her fierce longing for the familiar.

This book deals with a topic not yet addressed in the Martha books, which is death. Martha is confronted with death, with leaving home, with change. Fear is a prominent theme in this book: fear of the unknown, fear of leaving the ones you love. Yet the end brings the promise of joy in new life, too. It’s a very familiar bookend, death and life, but it’s one that’s always needed.

Beyond the Heather Hills isn’t as fun as some of the previous Martha books. Martha spends too much time being homesick for that. But it is a very poignant one. It’s a shame that these books weren’t more popular, as they really are quite good children’s books, but they do lack a little something. As fiery as Martha is, the books are a little too plain.

I’ve enjoyed rereading these books, though they don’t hold a candle in my mind against the original Wilder books. Wiley did a good job with conveying Scottish tradition and culture and with making Martha a good protagonist who learns a lot but still manages to have fun along the way. They’re not my favorite of the “prequel series to Little House books,” but they hold a special place in my heart because of their presence in my childhood bookshelf.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2SeOIHG

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, was published in 2009 by Little, Brown and Company.

Rating: 1/5

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has won a lot of acclaim for its portrayal of Indian culture and its subversion and denunciation of common stereotypes. However, to be honest, I didn’t really notice much of that in the book itself—I was too distracted by the vulgar and inappropriate content that left me feeling very uncomfortable.

I did notice that Junior used a lot of blanket statements and generalizations, though. So much so that it started to undermine his role as a cultural-barrier-crosser. Then again, he IS just a teenager, so that seems par for the course, unfortunately.

I also didn’t appreciate the complete lack of care that was given in describing bulimia, or the biased statements about religion.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I almost DNF (that’s “did not finish”) the book. And it’s mostly because of the gross, inappropriate teenage boy content and jokes that went on for far too long.

There were some good things about the book. I liked the theme of friendship and loyalty, as well as the potential conversations that could arise about loyalty to family, culture, and race. But I mostly wanted it to be over so I could stop reading all the sexual content.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Sexual situations, swearing, mentions of masturbation and erections, bulimia, alcoholism.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RacvZi

Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George

Saturdays at Sea, by Jessica Day George, was published in 2017 by Bloomsbury. It is the sequel to Fridays with the Wizards.

Rating: 2/5

The Castle Glower series is going a little bit the way of the Wide-Awake Princess series, in my opinion. There’s definitely things that are connecting each book together, but each book feels more tired and pale than the last. Too many old formulas are used and there’s not enough variety to spice it up. As a book series for kids, I can see why George would rely on things she’s used before, but for me as an adult, I don’t find them compelling any more.

If you like the formula of the Castle Glower books, Saturdays at Sea continues in that vein: lots of griffins, some humor, and more revelations about the world and the Castle. In this book, unicorns are introduced, and I did like that George showed them in a different way than you would think of unicorns today. There’s a small amount of characterization with Celie, but not really enough to make any big character changes. These sorts of books tend to keep their characters the same way, which is probably what bothers me the most.

If you liked the other books in the series, then you will probably enjoy this one, too. For me, it was too much of the same-old, same-old, and not enough improvement in terms of writing or characterization. There’s also way too many animals—dogs and griffins and now unicorns are all jostling for position alongside a healthy cast of characters. I definitely would go back and read Tuesdays at the Castle again, but I don’t really want to re-read any of the others.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2DxeIKk