The War That Saved My Life is about Ada and her brother, Jamie, who are sent to the country to escape the threat of Hitler (well, Jamie is sent—Ada sneaks along). Ada has a clubfoot and a terrible mother, and knows almost nothing about human interaction or the outside world. The book is basically a coming-of-age story for Ada, who learns many things while staying with Susan, the woman who took her and Jamie in, as well as a story of strength and survival.
There’s a lot going on in this book to unpack. There’s the background of World War II at the beginning, leading to its outright interference towards the end, so we get stories of heroes and spies at the same time as Ada is finding her own inner strength. We have Ada’s journey, from abused to hero, and her growing reconciliation with the fact that her clubfoot doesn’t make her worthy of less love. We have Susan’s journey, from depressed lonely woman to someone who grows to care fiercely for the children. And Jamie gets a mini-journey as well, though he never felt a believable six-year-old to me.
It’s a Newbery Honor book, and deservedly so. It’s a heartwrenching, heartwarming story of love and family. The inclusion of World War II isn’t toned down; it’s brutal and scary and shows just the sort of atmosphere that must have existed at the time. Of course, the best part of the book is Ada, though Susan’s own journey is almost as important. However, there’s a scene at the end where Ada confronts her mother that is supposed to be the strongest part of the book, but I found to be a little confusing and a little too cut-and-dry. Despite that, though, The War That Saved My Life is powerful and memorable, and one of the better stories that handles abuse and disability.
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, was published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
“A bolt of lightning on my kicks…/ The court is sizzling. / My sweat is drizzling. / Stop all that quivering. / Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps basketball phenom Josh Bell. Thanks to his dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court, with crossovers that make even the toughest ballers cry. But Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him—a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line. As their winning season unfolds, things begin to change. When Jordan meets the new girl in school, the twins’ tight-knight bond unravels. In this heartfelt novel, basketball and brotherhood intertwine to show Josh and Jordan that life doesn’t come with a playbook and, sometimes, it’s not about winning.
I’m not a huge fan of novels written in verse, but The Crossover won me over. Alexander made the format actually fit in a way that made sense; there was a reason that’s important to the story why it was written this way, and it really would not have been the same book at all if it had been written in prose. Not many novels-in-verse are like that.
This book is remarkably sad, as befitting a Newbery Medal (I kid, but seriously, Newbery Medal winners often have some poignancy attached), and the worst part is that what makes it so sad is the unnecessariness of it all. You can see the sadness coming from a mile away, and all you want to do is scream at the characters and get them to prevent what’s coming, but of course, that’s not how books work.
Despite the sadness, The Crossover is quite funny, and there’s even a happy ending of sorts. More bittersweet than happy, perhaps. And Alexander does a great job of conveying all the various emotions of everyone, not just Josh, so that really helps give the characters more depth.
The one thing that I found confusing was simply the basketball terminology. Even after having a crossover explained to me, I still had no idea what the point of it was or why it seemed to be so important in basketball. It would have been nice to have someone explain why it’s important to have a good crossover, but perhaps that would have broken up the flow of the book.
The Crossover actually reminded me quite a bit of some my students, who I think might really enjoy this book—even if it is written in verse! It’s sad and funny and heartwarming and bittersweet in all the right places in all the right times. I’m still not a fan of novels in verse, but The Crossover is one of my favorites of the style.
Milo keeps waiting for that special relief that usually settles in at the start of winter vacation. But it’s not coming. For one thing, there’s no snow, and it’s hard to get into the spirit when all you have to work with is a crust of stupid frost. For another, it’s been a tough couple of weeks at school, thanks to a teacher who doesn’t get how much Milo hates having attention called to him, and to his adoption. Then there’s the lone guest staying at his family’s inn, an art student who seems determined not to leave until he’s sketched very single stained-glass window in the place. Worst of all, Milo’s friend Meddy has been conspicuously absent for a long, long time. It’s almost enough to make him wish for a winter break like last year’s, when his house was full of secretive guests and unexpected mysterious, and Meddy had helped him unravel it all. There’s no chance of that happening again, though; Milo is certain of it. Until the bell rings.
I loved Greenglass House, so of course I had to pick up the sequel! Ghosts of Greenglass House picks up a year after the events of the first novel. It’s been a while since I read the first book, but luckily Milford does a good job of filling in enough of the gaps that I wasn’t completely lost. The fantasy element is even stronger in this book, and the mystery is delightfully twisty as well.
I did think the mystery, or parts of it, was easier to figure out than the first book. The truly shocking reveal I figured out beforehand, but there was another one I didn’t see coming, so that was delightful. There were a few aspects that I found a little confusing, but for the most part, all of the clues were integrated really well into the novel, so much so that I never picked up on them until the characters explicitly pointed them out.
The story aspect that I really enjoyed from the first book is back, as well. I love books that emphasize the power of stories, and I’m glad that Milford stuck to the same sort of thing she did with Greenglass House. That book worked well for a reason, so it was smart of Milford to call back on all those great elements and create a new story out of them.
However, a few things are holding Ghosts of Greenglass House back from being as delightful as the first one. The first is that I really didn’t buy the relationship between Georgie and Emmett. How they interacted felt more as if they knew each other for weeks as opposed to one day. Another thing was the heavy-handedness/preachiness, but that’s probably due to the fact that I’m an adult reading a book aimed for children. Even so, I wasn’t fond of Milo’s self-reflections, especially when it results in a “the people around you need to change, not you” sort of message. I also wasn’t fond of the roleplaying bit this time around, and since it’s pretty central to the novel, I tried my best to like it and ended up not enjoying it.
Ghosts of Greenglass House has a delightful, deep mystery interspersed with fantasy elements that are communicated quite well. There’s mentions of The Left-handed Fate, too! However, a lot of the aspects I remember liking about Greenglass House I didn’t like here, so I’m wondering, if I read the first book again, would I still like it as much?
After being held captive in the city of Gold and Lead—the capital, where the creatures that control the mechanical, monstrous Tripods live—Will believes that he’s learned everything he needs to know to story them. He has discovered the source of their power, and with this new knowledge, Will and his friends plan to return to the City of Gold and Lead to take down the Masters once and for all. Although Will and his friends have planned everything down to the minute, the Masters still have surprises in store. Will enters the battle with confidence, but it might not be enough to fight against the Tripods. And with the Masters’ plan to destroy Earth completely, Will may have just started the war that will end it all.
The Pool of Fire takes place almost right where The City of Gold and Lead left off, after Will comes back from the aforementioned city with the knowledge he gleaned about the Masters. The entirety of this book details the fight against the Masters (not the Tripods, as the back cover leads you to believe—they only show up once or twice) and what the humans must do before they can infiltrate the cities to destroy them.
I realized while reading The Pool of Fire that Christopher’s writing style is probably not for everyone. I actually enjoy it a lot, though I find it needlessly complicated at times, but it’s a nice breath of fresh air from all the present tense, flowery and trying to be poetic writing out there. I also really enjoy Will as the not-always-capable, brash, not-particularly-heroic hero. In many ways, it is the other characters who shine more so than Will: Beanpole, with his work in bringing back ancient knowledge (like electricity and hot air balloons!), Henry, with a moment in the book that I still clearly remembered even though it’s been years since I last read this book, and one other, who I won’t say because it is a spoiler. In fact, compared to those three, sometimes Will is a bit exasperating.
The one thing that I really didn’t like about this book is Christopher’s pretentious introduction, as well as all the “is the world worth saving if humans are just going to kill each other again?” talk. And what’s really ironic is that this attempt at preaching world peace is going on as the humans of this novel are about to go to war. I suppose since it’s against aliens it doesn’t count, huh? There’s also the attempt at the united world government at the end. I mean, it’s nice that in a book about an alien invasion, there is some attention given to the reconstruction done after the aliens are defeated, but I just wish Christopher had been less heavy-handed about it.
The Pool of Fire is a good conclusion to this series, continuing the tone and the characterization from the first two books and detailing a lot more than was covered in the first two books, as years pass in this one. I had some issues with the idea of world peace that’s preached throughout the novel, as I don’t think it’s realistic or feasible, and there were some problems with pacing throughout (not helped by Christopher’s dry writing style, though again, for the most part I don’t mind it). In addition, Will is honestly the most forgettable thing about the book. However, there’s some great moments in this book, ones that I remember vividly, and I’m not disappointed that I came back to this trilogy.
When Will and his friends arrived at the White Mountains, they thought everything would be okay. They’d found a safe haven where the mechanical monsters called Tripods could not find them. But once there, they wonder about the world around them and how everyone else is faring against the machines. In order to save everyone else, Will and his friends want to take down the Tripods once and for all. That means journeying to the capital of the Tripods: the City of Gold and Lead. Although the journey will be difficult, the real danger comes once Will is inside, where Tripods roam freely and humans are even more enslaved than they are on the outside. Without anyone to help him, Will must learn the secrets of the Tripods—and how to take them down—before they figure out that he’s a spy…and he can only pretend to be brainwashed for so long.
The City of Gold and Lead delves further into the world of the Tripods, revealing the main threat of the trilogy and showing some standard science fiction fare. The question I had while reading The White Mountains of whether the Tripods themselves are the enemies or if there are aliens piloting them is answered, as Will and his friends infiltrate one of their cities. The first book was more “science fiction integrated into our world” while this one cranks it up and has the familiar replaced with the unfamiliar in the Tripod city.
I’m not sure how believable Christopher’s science is in the world he has created, but it almost doesn’t matter. The threat is real enough that the reader is swept up into the same race against time that Will and his friends are in. There’s a recurring motif of time limits in this book, from the journey that they must make in a particular time, to the strict schedule and timing inside the city, to the ultimate time limit set in the battle against the Tripods that Will discovers while in the city.
Speaking of Will, I really like him as a protagonist. He does enough stupid things to keep him from being too perfect, but he also takes initiative when he needs to. He’s brash, but can act fairly shrewdly when necessary. He makes some excuses for his lapses in action or judgment, but then acknowledges them and strives to make up for it. The development of his relationship with Fritz is done very well, too. I like that Christopher set up this trio of Will, Henry, and Beanpole in the first book, and then in this book tears it apart and gives us Fritz instead. It’s realistic, as it’s unlikely all three boys would always get picked for everything, and it gives Will more ways to develop.
The City of Gold and Lead is more interesting than The White Mountains, as it develops much more of the world and gives more incentive for the heroes, has some good character development, and, despite a long beginning, moves along quite well in terms of pace. There’s not a lot of action, but Christopher’s descriptions pull you into the book regardless. I’m eager to pick up the next book and see how everything ends.
The Dragon’s Tooth, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2011 by Random House.
For two years, Cyrus and Antigone Smith have run a sagging roadside motel with their older brother, Daniel. Nothing ever seems to happen. Then a strange old man with bone tattoos arrives, demanding a specific room. Less than 24 hours later, the old man is dead. The motel has burned, and Daniel is missing. And Cyrus and Antigone are kneeling in a crowded hall, swearing an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world’s secrets, keepers of powerful relics from lost civilizations, and jailers to unkillable criminals who have terrorized the world for millennia.
I was fairly interested in The Dragon’s Tooth when I started the book, hoping that the title would promise Actual Dragons at some point. I had liked 100 Cupboards enough to give Wilson a try again (especially if there was going to be dragons!). The beginning seemed pretty interesting, too, if fairly formulaic: unassuming young boy meets stranger, is handed a Mystical Object, and is almost immediately chased by Shadowy Figures.
It’s after that point when the book descended very swiftly into quirky fantasy territory, and my interest and excitement plunged with it.
Also, there are no dragons.
By the time Cyrus and Antigone got to Strange Base/Secret Lair/Pseudo Hogwarts, I knew that the rest of the book would be difficult for me to finish. Every person Cyrus and Antigone met sounded stilted, and the incomprehensible jargon and blather that was disjointedly thrown in to make things more mysterious and worldbuildy got annoying, fast. Cyrus makes odd decisions, overly eager at one point and overly cautious at the next. His squabbles with Antigone slow the pace of the book down and do nothing but create obstacles (as well as solidify Antigone as a useless character) for Cyrus to either obey or reject, depending on what the plot requires.
In addition, the villain is cartoonish and strange and almost too powerful, in the way where you wonder, if things are so easy for him to accomplish, why he hasn’t done anything before that particular moment in the book (like, if it’s so easy to get to Secret Base (I forgot the name), why in the world hasn’t he done it sooner?) Nothing about the world Wilson created makes sense, and things are poorly explained.
I think Wilson was trying to go for “quirky fantasy” and went way too far, taking “quirky” into “incomprehensible mess.” I actually don’t think I would have minded quite so much if there had been one less strange character, and especially if the villain hadn’t been so cartoonish. If the villain had been a serious villain, rather than what he was, I think I would have been able to stomach The Dragon’s Tooth a little bit better.
Dark Water Rising, by Marian Hale, was published in 2006 by Henry Holt.
You’d think every person from Lampasa to Houston wanted to go to Galveston this hot August day. Everyone but Seth. Galveston, Texas, may be the booming city of the brand-new twentieth century, filled with opportunities for all, but to Seth it is the end of a dream. He longs to be a carpenter like his father, yet Pap has moved the family to Galveston so that Seth can become a doctor. Still, the last few weeks of summer might not be so bad. Seth has landed his first real job as a builder, and there’s that girl across the street, the one with the sun-bright hair. Things seem to be looking up…until a storm warning is raised one sweltering afternoon. They say a north wind always brings change, but one could ever have imagined this. Set during the Galveston Storm of 1900, this is an unforgettable story of survival in the face of natural disaster.
About a month or so before reading Dark Water Rising, I was in Galveston and learned all about the storm of 1900, so it was interesting to see how this book described it. And, though it’s not as suspenseful or nerve-wracking as, say, Gordon Korman’s survival books, Hale does a fantastic job of conveying the shock and horror felt by the residents of Galveston when fifteen feet of water and waves tear apart the island, literally.
With so much available in terms of resources on the storm, Hale’s description is incredibly accurate (as far as I’m aware, of course). Individual stories from people who lived through the storm are woven into the tale, and her description both of the storm itself and the aftermath are chilling. The cover art contributes to Seth’s descriptions of a debris-strewn island (including a debris pile twenty feet high), and, just like Seth, the reader has a hard time visualizing the sheer immensity of the body count (official count is 8,000, though many people say something closer to 12,000 is more accurate).
The descriptions of and details given about the Galveston Storm of 1900 are the true take-aways of Dark Water Rising. Hale weaves in some family tension, especially between Seth and his father, but it’s not particularly memorable or exciting. In fact, it’s fairly predictable. She also throws in some racial tension with her two characters of Josiah and Ezra, and a mediocre budding romance. These elements are largely forgettable, especially in the face of what the book is actually about (the storm), but it’s nice to have some sort of narrative to bind everything together.
100 Cupboards, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2007 by Random House.
Twelve-year-old Henry York is going to sleep one night when he hears a bump on the attic wall above his head. It’s an unfamiliar house—Henry is staying with his aunt, uncle, and three cousins—so he tries to ignore it. But the next night he wakes up with bits of plaster in his hair. Two knobs have broken through the wall, and one of them is slowly turning…Henry scrapes the plaster off the wall and discovers doors—ninety-nine cupboards of all different sizes and shapes. Through one he can hear the sound of falling rain. Through another he sees a glowing room—with a man strolling back and forth! Henry and his cousin Henrietta soon understand that these are not just cupboards. They are, in fact, portals to other worlds.
100 Cupboards is a quirky, almost absurdist, fantasy. The premise is that Henry, who has gone to stay with his aunt and uncle, discovers that underneath the plaster in his room are many different cupboards. He soon realizes that they are portals to other worlds and—of course—that some of the things in those worlds want to come out. When his cousin disappears into one of the worlds, Henry must go in and get her—and not let anything else back out.
His sidekick/partner is his cousin, Henrietta (not sure why there’s all this fascination with the name, or variations of, Henry), who is rather annoying most of the time. I don’t have a lot of patience for impatient, headstrong characters. I mostly end up getting annoyed that they rush in and mess things up most of the time with their rashness. Henry himself is all right. He’s got the right sort of mystery about him, and though he’s timid, he’s brave when he needs to be. However, the plot revolving around his parents seems pointless (why not just make him an orphan?), and some of the things that are revealed during the course of the book aren’t as smooth or as clear as they could be.
This is the sort of book where I started out really interested and then gradually became less so as things became weirder. I thought things were a bit rushed at the end, and some of the worlds and characters that Wilson introduces seemed out of place. I don’t really have any desire or interest to find out what happens next. I thought the premise was interesting, but I would have much preferred it if it had simply been a “crawl into cupboards and explore other worlds” type of fantasy, rather than a “you let something evil out and now must save everything” type of fantasy. The introduction of that part is where things fell apart in this book, in my opinion.
100 Cupboards has a really good premise, though Wilson doesn’t always execute it as well as he could. Some of the mysteries were interesting, and some of them fell a little flat. The book as a whole is a bit quirky and odd, and doesn’t always hit the right notes. I can see some people really enjoying this book, but for me, I’m not interested in reading any more than I have.
Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild. At his grandfather’s house three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be—with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox. Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own.
As you might expect from the summary, Pax is one of those animal separation stories that is meant to be heartbreaking and full of “I have to find my animal who’s like my friend/family!” moments, complete with tears and angst. It reminded me a lot of The Fox and the Hound, except if the hound was a boy and there weren’t years between their separation. I’m not a huge fan of animal stories that have animals with their own point of view, but I must admit that Pax has a very tolerable fox point of view, much more focused on accurate animal behavior and language than on making the animals seem like humans.
Pennypacker writes beautifully, so it’s a shame that the story has an obvious, predictable plot as well as some subtle-as-a-brick-in-your-face messages about war. The entire middle portion has Peter talking with Vola for pages and pages while Vola gives the message of the book over and over again in increasingly sentimental, nonsubtle ways. We get it, Pennypacker. War Is Bad. The name “Pax” for the fox told us that. I also noticed that while the perils of war were mentioned over and over (and over and over) again, Pennypacker offer no suggestions about how to bring about peace besides not fighting. It’s the same problem that plagued Margaret Peterson Haddix’s The Always War—the message was encompassed completely into “Don’t fight because fighting is bad and destroys people/nature/animals. If you don’t fight, everyone will get along.” Sure…okay.
Pennypacker’s message also hangs on a poorly developed setting. What war is going on during the book? Where does the story take place? It obviously takes place in the US (coyotes), but where and when? The future? Also, why is it so easy for Peter to get access to a war zone? What kind of explosion severs a fox’s leg from its body so neatly that later the leg of the fox can be found, rather than it being mangled beyond recognition if it’s still there at all? Part of getting absorbed into a good book is knowing where the characters are and what sort of obstacle they’re facing so that it solidifies the story into your mind. Pennypacker clearly just wanted to write an anti-war novel featuring animals, so she didn’t seem to put much thought into setting beyond “let’s have some sort of vague war and the cute animals will distract from the utter nonsense of the setting.”
For a book about cute foxes, Pax was an annoying read, what with its over-the-top antiwar message (with no reasonable alternative given), its unbelievable and vague setting, and its too lengthy middle portion with Vola the Philosopher and Moral Voice. The actual animal point of view was well done, and the writing was beautiful, but the delivery, pace, and mechanics of the world were poorly done and poorly conceived.
The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J. A. White, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.
When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic, except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr’s Realm. But mostly it’s called the Thickety. The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother. And that is just the beginning of the story.
I very nearly stopped reading The Thickety: A Path Begins about halfway through, and then through the last half of the book wished I had stopped reading. A Path Begins is a tale about Kara, the daughter of a witch, who finds a book in the Thickety and is swept up into the seductive realm of magic. Only her brother, Taff, keeps her from being totally lost, and along the way she faces more immediate threats than the mysterious forest demon Sordyr.
The worst part about A Path Begins was the writing, in my opinion. Full of melodramatic dialogue, stilted description, and forced tension, it was a bad omen from the start. And it shaded everything in this book with a terrible light—the writing was so bothersome to me that I found it hard to find anything that I liked about the book. Even the setting is over-the-top, with a too-fanatical leader and a world that is so exaggerated in its extremes that it’s farcical. There are too many villains and Kara herself does too many stupid things for me to want to cheer for her.
The plot is also riddled with inconsistencies, like how Kara sprains her ankle and five minutes later is running on it with apparently no pain or problems whatsoever. There’s also the strange flip-flopping between “magic is good” and “magic is bad,” with the final decision between “good witch” and “bad witch” a completely arbitrary one, delivered clumsily, and ignoring the fact that such black and white pronouncements only lead to problems, mostly for the authors writing the characters who then have to explain away their character’s actions in order to fit them into their defined roles.
Really, the story just reads like a man wrote it. That’s not a bad thing, but I oftentimes have more problems with men’s style of writing than women’s. They just have ways of describing things that I can’t wrap my head around, and they also focus on things that I don’t understand why they would focus on.
I regret finishing A Path Begins because it took up a lot of time to read and now I can never get that time back. It was too melodramatic, too stilted, too forced. None of the characters appealed to me and I have no interest in seeing more of the world or finding out what happens next.