The Raven by Mike Nappa

Disclaimer: The Raven, by Mike Nappa, was provided by Revell in exchange for an honest review.

As part of his street performance, a deception specialist who goes by the name The Raven picks his audience’s pockets while they watch. It’s harmless fun—until he decides to keep the wallet of a prominent politician, hoping for a few extra bucks. When he finds compromising phots of the councilman and his “personal assistants,” The Raven hatches a plane to blackmail the man. However, he quickly finds himself in over his head with the Ukrainian mafia and mired in a life-threatening plot code-named “Nevermore.” Private investigators Trudi Coffey and Samuel Hill must scramble to sort out the clues to rescue The Traven from a wild card bent on revenge.

My rating: 3/5

I didn’t enjoy The Raven as much as I enjoyed the first Coffey and Hill novel Annabel Lee, but it was still an intense, suspenseful read. I could have done without the excessive description of every brand worn by the characters and every gun they pulled and every car they drove, though. It also seems like Nappa spends more time describing Trudi than anyone else, and it ends up seeming like a forced “you’re supposed to like this girl and oh, yeah, she’s gorgeous, too, and has good taste so there’s no reason not to like her” type of thing. No other character gets quite the amount of description that she does.

While reading Annabel Lee before this book is not necessary, there are people and events described in The Raven that were from Annabel Lee. We also learn more about Samuel’s affair, and it takes a surprising little twist at the end (though not the surprising twist I was hoping for), which left me a little confused since it didn’t seem like it followed from what Nappa had revealed to us. However, I guess Nappa needs that continuing plot thread to link the books together (though it’s not overly necessary, in my opinion).

Even though The Raven didn’t grip me as much as Annabel Lee did, and I found the brand name description annoying, I did enjoy the book, especially the character Raven. He’s characterized well and is sympathetic in all the right places. The plot is also intense and has its suspenseful moments, though some of it was a little confusing to follow at times. But my dislikes were not enough to make me stop getting more Coffey and Hill novels in the future, so here’s to the next book!

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Realistic, Christian

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Fly Trap by Frances Hardinge

Fly Trap, by Frances Hardinge, was published in 2011 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Fly by Night.

Having barely escaped the revolution they had a huge (if accidental) part in causing, sharp-eyed orphan Mosca Mye; her guard goose, Saracen; and their sometimes-loyal companion, the con man Eponymous Clent, must start anew. All too quickly, they find themselves embroiled in fresh schemes and twisting politics as they are trapped in Toll, an odd town that changes its entire personality as day turns to night. Mosca and her friends attempt to fend off devious new foes, subvert old enemies, prevent the kidnapping of the mayor’s daughter, steal the town’s Luck, and somehow manage to escape with their lives—and hopefully a little money in their pockets.

Rating: 5/5

Unlike Fly by Night, I was much less distracted while reading Fly Trap. This might have affected the way I feel about both books, but that can’t be helped. As it stands, I loved Fly Trap much, much more than Fly by Night. The worldbuilding was much less complicated (all I had to remember was that Locksmiths=bad things and Mandelion=rebellion) and the setting of the book itself fascinated me. I loved the concept of Toll, the wooden town with the sliding doors and completely different personalities at day and at night. I loved the stubbornness of Mosca, the glibness of Eponymous, the delight of new characters like Paragon and Midwife Leap, and the wild shenanigans that occurred (the four Clatterhorse parade was probably my favorite part of the book, along with anything involving Saracen).

Fly Trap isn’t as focused on the written word and books as Fly by Night was, and so some of the beautiful language that was in Fly by Night didn’t seem as apparent in Fly Trap. But there were delicious bits of imagery here and there, and overall I enjoyed the characters, setting, and plot of Fly Trap too much to care that some of the beauty of the writing wasn’t as stand-out as it had been in the first book.

It did take me a little bit to fully get into and enjoy the book, but once I did (pretty much once Mosca & Co. got to Toll), I could barely put Fly Trap down. I wouldn’t mind reading about another adventure of Mosca and Eponymous and Saracen, but I loved this one so much that I think it would be hard to top.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: A small amount of violence, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Did you see its face?” The doctor was craning his head to one side, perhaps in an attempt to see whether the pie-hatted man’s head was bulging strangely.

“There was no time for that, sir. One minute it was swooping at me, then it grabbed hold of me and tried to drag me to hell with the might of a hurricane.”

“You actually felt it?” The doctor seemed fascinated.

“Well, yes, sir. You don’t think my nose is this color naturally, do you?” the feature in question did indeed seem to be unusually raw looking.

“It…tried to drag you to hell…by your nose?”

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A Love Transformed by Tracie Peterson

Disclaimer: A Love Transformed, by Tracie Peterson, was provided by Bethany House in exchange for an honest review.

When her husband, Adolph, dies suddenly, Clara Vesper is stunned. Not grief-stricken, as their marriage had never been a love match, but staggered by what might become of her and her children. For years she designed the sapphire jewelry that made her husband’s company a fortune, but she little money in her own name and soon discovers that she has inherited nothing. Fearing for the welfare of her two small children, she decides to take them to her aunt and uncle’s ranch in Montana, the only place she has ever been happy. But much as changed since she last visited the Montana ranch, both for Clara and for those she was forced to leave behind. And when dangerous secrets from her late husband’s past threaten everyone she loves, Clara must fight to remain where she can fulfill her dreams.

My rating: 1/5

A Love Transformed starts with an interesting premise and the hope that the story will be different than the usual “woman returns home after long absence” archetype. That hope, however, is quickly dashed, as nothing in the book is surprising or inventive. It plays out exactly how you think it might play out, with the woman quickly reuniting with her lost love (with a few predictable setbacks at the beginning), then scrambling to figure a way out of the dangerous secrets that followed her from her former life, then conquering them and riding off with her lost love into the sunset. Yawn.

I thought it would have been much more interesting if Peterson had decided to make Curtis leave for the war rather than conveniently (in terms of the plot) get injured just as Clara returns. That’s literally the only thing Curtis’s injury was used for, as a vehicle to get him to remain behind and angst about how he might not be a “complete man” or whatever, and it was so disappointing to see such an overused trope. The romantic aspect of it wasn’t even that great, either. It was too predictable.

Add the contrived plot involving Otto and the annoying mother to the predictable and boring romance, and A Love Transformed was a struggle to finish. I’m starting to wonder if some of the authors I read are simply not aware of how unoriginal their concepts/plots are, or if this sort of thing legitimately sells and that’s why they keep writing it. Either way, I’m not a fan. Give me something with substance in place of a story told a thousand times already in the same way.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

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The Doll People Set Sail by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin

The Doll People Set Sail, by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, was published in 2014 by Hyperion. It is the sequel to The Runaway Dolls.

Annabelle Doll, Tiffany Funcraft, and their families are whisked out to sea when the Palmers accidentally place them in a box destined for charity donation. And it turns out they’re not alone—there are plenty of other doll people on the ship, too. After traveling thousands of miles, will they be able to find their way home?

Rating: 3/5

Oddly enough—perhaps because he wasn’t available—Brian Selznick did not return to illustrate The Doll People Set Sail. The illustrations were instead done by Brett Helquist, who is a fantastic illustrator but definitely does not have the same style as Selznick. And, unfortunately, it really threw off the book for me. It just didn’t feel like a Doll People book without Selznick’s drawings. It felt less “these are actual dolls” and more “these are just drawings of dolls,” if that makes sense.

Despite the drawings, I did really enjoy this book. Annabelle gets some courage, Tiffany gains some wisdom, new friends are made, and somehow the dolls manage to navigate a gigantic ship without anyone breaking into pieces or getting caught (although I found it just a teensy bit unrealistic that they were able to traverse such a large quantity of the ship in just a few hours). I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as The Runaway Dolls (because The Runaway Dolls gave me a lot of Toy Story 2 vibes, and Toy Story 2 is my favorite Toy Story movie), but still, it was quite good.

I doubt there will be a fifth Doll People book, if only because I can’t see what would come next. Martin and Godwin have gone bigger and bigger with each book. What could top being shipped away? It’s been an enjoyable series, perfect for young children who love Toy Story or who just love dolls. And as contrived as they can be towards the end, they are at least a fun contrived. The Doll People Set Sail is a good ending book, with Annabelle becoming less afraid and all the dolls happy and enjoying their life.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Children’s

“The ATC!” [Annabelle] wailed, her worries flooding back in an instant. “We really are going to the ATC! We could wind up anywhere. Mrs. Palmer said the ATC donations are sent to children all around the world.”

“But it sounds like we’re going to a warehouse first,” said Tiffany. “When they unload our box there, they’ll see that we don’t have an ATC label. I’m sure they’ll return us then.”

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Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Avonlea, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, was first published in 1909. For those interested, I read the 2014 Aladdin edition. It is the sequel to Anne of Green Gables.

It’s been five years since Anne Shirley came to the town of Avonlea, and while she feels (a little) more grown up, she’s still the same skinny, redheaded orphan Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert took in. After putting her dream of attending Redmond College on hold so she can help Marilla with the farm, Anne doubts she has many adventures ahead of her. But even in plain old Avonlea her life is anything but ordinary. Anne takes over the local school and is determined to be a beloved teacher, but that’s hard when she has students like the forever bad-tempered Anthony Pye—who is just as determined to be a problem. Anne’s former enemy, Gilbert Blythe, starts to give her an awful lot of attention, while her best friend, Diana, seems to be growing up a little more quickly than she is. Anne decides to recruit Gilbert and Diana, as well as her old school friends, to start the Avonlea Village Improvement Society, which—in true Anne fashion—sometimes ends up doing more harm than good. Throw in rambunctious orphan twins Davy and Dora, a foul-mouthed parrot, and a case of mistaken identity involving a cow, and Anne definitely gets more excitement than she thought she would staying in Avonlea.

Rating: 3/5

Anne of Avonlea is probably one of my least favorite Anne books, if only because I don’t find it entirely necessary and there’s not much of a plot. As with Anne of Windy Poplars (another least favorite Anne book), Anne of Avonlea doesn’t really do all that much to advance the characters in anything but age. It introduces some new characters—Dora and Davy and possibly some others that show up later—and gives Anne a reason for going to Redmond, but other than that, it’s easy enough to just find out the important bits and skip the book completely.

The book is basically about Anne’s adventures as a schoolteacher and her desires to “improve” everyone in Avonlea. It reminds me a little bit of Emma by Jane Austen, actually, but with less matchmaking and more general meddling and improvement. There’s some important stuff in regards to Marilla taking Davy and Dora under her wing, and Diana’s engagement to Fred Wright, but other than that, nothing really important happens beyond seeing a glimpse of Gilbert’s feelings for Anne. It’s a charming book, but not nearly as charming as Anne of Green Gables.

I do consider Anne of Avonlea one of the weakest books in the series, and I’m eager now to reread Anne of Windy Poplars to see which book I think is better. The problem with Avonlea is that nothing much happens in terms of development and it has too many “slices-of-life” without the joy of watching Anne grow up and learn from her mistakes. Also, I found the comparison between Davy and Dora irritating because I’m not a fan of Davy and I don’t like how Montgomery describes Dora to basically force the reader into liking Davy more.

Recommended Age Range: 10+ (and lower!)

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“I am Mrs. Donnell…Mrs. H. B. Donnell,” announced this vision, “and I have come in to see you about something Clarice Almira told me when she came home to dinner today. It annoyed me excessively.”

“I’m sorry,” faltered Anne, vainly trying to recollect any incident of the morning connected with the Donnell children.

“Clarice Almira told me that you pronounced our name Donnell. Now, Miss Shirley, the correct pronunciation of our name is Donnell…accent on the last syllable. I hope you’ll remember this in future.”

“I’ll try to, gasped Anne, choking back a wild desire to laugh.

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The Road We Traveled by Jane Kirkpatrick

Disclaimer: The Road We Traveled, by Jane Kirkpatrick, was provided by Revell in exchange for an honest review.

Tabitha Brown refuses to be left behind in Missouri when her son makes the decision to strike out for Oregon—even if she has to hire her own wagon to join the party. After all, family ties are stronger than fear. Along with her reluctant daughter and her ever-hopeful granddaughter, the intrepid Tabitha has her misgivings. The trials they face along the way will severely test her faith, courage, and ability to hope. With her family’s survival on the line, she must make the ultimate sacrifice, plunging deeper into the wilderness to seek aid. What she couldn’t know was how this frightening journey would impact how she understood her own life—and the greater part she had to play in history.

My rating: 2/5

Jane Kirkpatrick composes a faithful, detailed account of the “Mother of Oregon” in The Road We Traveled, depicting Tabitha Moffat Brown’s journey from Missouri to Oregon on the Oregon/Applegate Trail. The attention to historical accuracy and detail is wonderful and, as with the last book by Kirkpatrick I read (The Memory Weaver), I’m impressed and pleased at the research that went into this book. You can tell the book was lovingly crafted in order to pay tribute to a woman from history that many people probably do not know about.

However, all the lovely historical detail aside, The Road We Traveled is an uneven mess of a book. Perhaps “mess” is too harsh of a word. I’ll put it this way: there were parts of the book where I went “Hmm, this is interesting,” and then there were more parts where I wondered when the book would be over—especially towards the end, where so much time passed in so few pages that I ended up confused and detached from the book. So much was crammed into the end that I had trouble following along.

I do like the characters, for the most part, though Virgilia gets the short end of the stick, in my opinion. I do like the setting. But the pace of the book ruined it for me. It started out slow, then got mildly interesting, then trudged along with the wagons on the Oregon Trail, then finished in one large rush, dumping ten or so years of time into thirty or so pages right at the end. I think, as I mentioned in my review of The Memory Weaver, that this style of book is not really my cup of tea. I don’t particularly like stories that stretch across years of a person’s life because they often feel rushed and I don’t feel as connected with the character. I’d rather read, say, the fantastic Dear America account of the Oregon Trail (Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie) than this novel.

I appreciate The Road We Traveled for its historical detail, its wealth of research apparent in the pages, and its information on a little-known (to me, anyway, and probably to a lot of people) woman in history who went on the Oregon Trail when she was in her sixties and then founded a school. However, the style of the book itself, and other aspects such as its pacing, made it less than memorable and more than a little boring, and even confusing, to read.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian

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Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick

Absolutely Truly, by Heather Vogel Frederick, was published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster.

At almost six feet tall, twelve-year-old Truly Lovejoy stands out in a crowd where she likes it or not. (She doesn’t.) So when her family moves to teeny-tiny, super boring Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, Truly doesn’t stand a chance of blending in. But when helping out at the family bookstore one day, Truly finds a mysterious letter inside an old copy of Charlotte’s Web and soon she and her new friends are swept up in a madcap treasure hunt around town. While chasing clues that could spell danger, Truly discovers there’s more to Pumpkin Falls than meets the eye—and that blending in can be overrated.

Rating: 2/5

Absolutely Truly is a decent middle grade mystery, although I prefer mysteries to be a little more complicated and less “let me tell you about all the thinking my character is doing complete with comparison to fitting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle until it all clicks together.” Frederick relies a little too much on overused mystery tropes and the entire thing stands on very shaky ground for me. I don’t believe that an envelope survived for twenty-ish years taped to a bridge, exposed to the elements as it was (and if the bridge was covered, how did Truly fall off of it anyway?).

The family aspect of the plot was okay, although I wish Truly’s dad hadn’t been the stereotypical military dad type and that Frederick had dwelt a little more on how Truly feels about her place in the family. There are several times where she feels unappreciated and invisible, but it’s never resolved or brought up again at the end. The end bit with her dad was nice, though, if a little cheesy.

Absolutely Truly isn’t that bad of a book—it just didn’t hit the right notes for me. The mystery was too simple and unoriginal, a lot of the elements of it didn’t make sense to me from the start, and overall it felt merely average. A good book for kids, but I would give them better mysteries to read.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Some implied PTSD and mentions of IEDs.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade, Realistic

It was sealed shut, and as far as I could tell had never been opened. Why would someone leave a letter stuck in an old copy of Charlotte’s Web? Had they meant to mail it, and forgotten? Or had they left it there deliberately for someone to find? There wasn’t an address on the envelope, or even a real name—just the capital letter B. But the envelope had a stamp on it, like it was all ready to send.

So why hadn’t it been?

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“Who Could That Be At This Hour?” by Lemony Snicket

“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” by Lemony Snicket was published in 2012 by Little, Brown and Company.

The adventure began in a fading town. Far from anyone he knew or trusted, a young Lemony Snicket started an apprenticeship for a secret organization shrouded in mystery and secrecy. He asked questions that shouldn’t have been on his mind. Now he has written an account that should not be published that shouldn’t be read. Not even by you. Seriously, we recommend that you do NOT ask your parents for this, the first book in his new ALL THE WRONG QUESTIONS series.

Rating: 2/5

As I understood before actually reading the book, “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” is a prequel of sorts to A Series of Unfortunate Events which delves deeper into V.F.D. and some of the mysteries that were left unanswered in the aforementioned unfortunate book series.

After reading the book, I’m not quite sure what to feel. On the plus side, it’s got some of the things that I loved about Unfortunate Events, such as the definition of words and the absurdist humor. On the minus side, I’m still not fond of the “every adult is incompetent” running joke because I don’t find it funny, and the answer to the “What is that giant question mark in the sea?” that rose up in The End is particularly dissatisfying and made me a little irritated, actually.

So, basically, I found “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” a middling book at best, a blatant “let’s beat this dead horse, only in a slightly different way than before” book at worst. I’m glad that it’s not a carbon copy of Unfortunate Events, but there’s enough similarities that this book pales in comparison. As I said, it’s a middling book—a forgettable, average, slightly-familiar, mysterious book that is almost not worth the trouble at all. Good for fans of Unfortunate Events, but not very welcoming to those unfamiliar with those 13 unfortunate books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Children’s

“This will be an easy case!” she crowed happily. “It’s not often that a client gives us the name of the criminal. You’re bringing me luck, Snicket.”

“If Mrs. Sallis knew who the burglar was,” I asked, “why wouldn’t she call the police?”

“That’s not important,” Theodora said. “What we need to figure out is how the Mallahans broke in through the ceiling.”

“We don’t know that they broke in through the ceiling,” I said.

“The windows were latched,” Theodora said. “There’s no other way they could have gotten into the library.”
“We got in through a pair of double doors,” I said.

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Summerlost by Ally Condie

Summerlost by Ally Condie was published in 2016 by Dutton.

It’s been a year since the devastating car accident that killed Cedar’s father and younger brother, Ben. But now Cedar and what’s left of her family are spending the summer in her mother’s hometown of Iron Creek and trying to mend their broken pieces. Memories surround Cedar, including strange gifts that begin to appear in the night—the type of small household items her brother Ben used to collect. Until one day a boy named Leo, dressed in costume, rides by on his bike, and everything about Cedar’s summer changes. Soon, Cedar not only has a job working at the renowned Summerlost theater festival, but also a growing friendship with Leo that will blossom as they piece together clues about the short and tragic life of one of Iron Creek’s most famous residents.

Rating: 3/5

Summerlost is not a gut-puncher nor an enthralling, mesmerizing read, but it is a good read and it hits a lot of important notes. After my disappointment with Condie’s Matched trilogy, it was nice to read something like Summerlost and see what I love about Condie shine through in the writing.

The book addresses loss, tragedy, friendship, and the sort of guilt someone might feel over having negative feelings about someone only for that someone to die—typical middle grade serious fare, but still important to address. My one complaint is that I felt Condie was hitting all the right notes but too quickly. It leaves Summerlost feeling a little shallow and not as powerful as something that lingers a little more on the topics. Not that I think the absence of significant angst is a negative, since it was quite refreshing to read a story about loss without massive amounts of protagonist angsting going along with it. And perhaps Condie’s light touch is better suited for a middle-grade novel, anyway.

As with The Penderwicks, I enjoyed the nebulous setting of Summerlost, the uncertainty of when, exactly, it takes place. Perhaps it’s wrong of me to assume that because the book features children riding around on bikes, going places without parental supervision, and no mention of phones or computers it takes place in, say, the 1980s. Perhaps there’s no time mentioned because it doesn’t need to have a time mentioned to be relevant. Loss is loss, whether it’s experienced in 2016 or 1916. Still, I liked the setting, if only because, as you know, I love “children go outside and do things” novels.

Summerlost might go through issues more quickly and shallowly than I would like, but it still hits a lot of important notes and has some good things to say about moving on from loss. I wish the Lisette plot angle didn’t feel as random and disjointed as it does, but overall, Condie has written a nice novel—not as moving or as powerful as some, but still important.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade

“But if they tear the theater down,” I said, “the Summerlost Festival logo won’t make sense. It’s a picture of the theater. And the logo is all over the place. On the bottles, the programs, the signs.”

“I bet they’ll keep the logo the same,” Leo said.

“Even if the theater’s gone?”

“It’s an icon,” he said. “I guess it was around for so long that it doesn’t actually have to be here anymore to have meaning for people.”

You can buy this book here:

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, was first published in 1908. For those interested, I read the 2004 Sterling Publishing edition.

Anne of Green Gables introduces Anne Shirley, the outspoken, impish, and fiercely independent girl who has been an endless source of fascination for millions of readers, young and old. We first meet Anne at age eleven, an imaginative, fiery, red-headed child sent by mistake from the orphanage to Mathew Cuthbert and his sister, Marilla. The Cuthberts, who had requested a boy to help with the work around the farm, were not at all pleased by this “freckled witch” of a child, with her constant chatter, outlandish ideas, and outspoken ways. But soon her indomitable spirit, her bright intelligence, and her high-spirited idealism win over Matthew and Marilla, even as these same traits lead Anne into mishap after mishap. Joining Anne in her exploits are her best friend, the beautiful and bookish Diana Barry; her nemesis, Gilbert Blythe, who insults her “Carrot” tresses on the first day of school; and the other colorful and quirky residents of the remote village of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in Canada.

Rating: 5/5

I have mixed opinions about Montgomery’s work in general, but I love, love, love Anne of Green Gables. As a child, it was my go-to book to get at the library if I didn’t know what else to read. I fondly remember the raspberry cordial, the lost amethyst broach, and, of course, the “carrots” incident. And on this reread, there were some things in the book that I had forgotten, such as the large timespan of the novel (Anne is 11 when the book starts and 16 when it finishes) and the Queens chapters.

I don’t know why reading about a fictional character’s life growing up in early 1900s Canada is so endearing and timeless, but Montgomery has written a classic here. The best part is that the book is funny. Montgomery both praises and chides Anne for her imagination, and reminds us all the way imagination can shape someone’s life—and what a benefit it can be to use your imagination properly.

Anne of Green Gables is much longer than I remember it being, yet it never drags and never stops being anything but charming. It’s a sophisticated book for a child to read, depending on their reading level, but it’s one that should absolutely be read for its look at imagination alone. And if you want to visualize it on the screen, I highly recommend the 1985 film starring Megan Fellows as Anne.

Recommended Age Range: 10+ (and lower!)

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“I shall never forgive Gilbert Blythe,” said Anne firmly. “And Mr. Phillips spelled my name without an e, too. The iron has entered my soul, Diana.”

Diana hadn’t the least idea what Anne meant but she understood it was something terrible.

“You mustn’t mind Gilbert making fun of your hair,” she said soothingly. “Why, he makes fun of all the girls. He laughs at mine because it’s so black. He’s called me a crow a dozen times; and I never heard him apologize for anything before, either.”

“There’s a great deal of difference between being called a crow and being called carrots,” said Anne with dignity. “Gilbert Blythe has hurt my feelings excruciatingly, Diana.”

You can buy this book here: