Tom D. Fitzgerald—better known as The Great Brain—has turned thirteen, and pretty Polly Reagan has put a spell on him. But when it comes to swindling his younger brother J. D. and all the other kids in Adenville, Utah, Tom hasn’t changed a bit. From thinking up the slippery soap deal and the numbers game to outwitting a band of murderous outlaws, The Great Brain is at the top of his form. And one thing’s for sure: life is more exciting when he’s around!
The Great Brain is Back was published posthumously, cobbled together from the late Fitzgerald’s writings. It is the last Great Brain book (obviously) and ends fairly well for being so—Tom goes off to high school in Pennsylvania, leaving John and Frankie bemoaning how boring it will be with him gone. It’s a good end, though in my opinion, the series ended best after book 5, when Tom reforms. The last three books weren’t anything special.
This book starts with perhaps the meanest trick Tom has ever pulled on his brother. John is occasionally at fault for falling for Tom’s cons, but the first chapter of the book details Tom maliciously and purposefully undermining his own brother. I became so irritated that I almost stopped reading, to be honest. It ends with Tom getting his just desserts, though, so that at least makes up for it, but the ending pales in comparison to the trial at the end of The Great Brain Reforms, mostly because there’s no indication that Tom will actually change.
Perhaps it’s because this was published after the author died, or perhaps it’s because even Fitzgerald was getting tired of these books, but this book (and the two before it) most prominently displays how quickly this series fell apart after having to explain away Tom’s reform. There’s no longer any lessons, no development—just story after story of Tom swindling people and mostly getting away with it. It’s always clever, occasionally heroic, and sometimes amusing, but there’s nothing connecting the stories to each other anymore. Tom has become a villain in his own series, in a way, because all the good things he does pales in comparison to the heartlessness he shows his friends and brothers.
I’ m glad I revisited this series, but now I’m glad it’s over. Tom was becoming too annoying for me to enjoy the books, and all of the lovely learning and development was tossed aside for more of the frustrating shenanigans. I would recommend to stop reading the series after book 5.
Series Rating: 3/5
Ranking (best to worst, or most favorite to least):
Tom Fitzgerald, alias The Great Brain, is back, struggling to stay reformed now that his friends have threatened to ostracize him if he pulls even one more swindle. But his brother J.D. knows the new Tom is too good to be true, and as a reformed Great Brain makes for a dull life, J.D. isn’t exactly unhappy—or blameless—when his brother’s money-loving heart stealthily returns to business as usual. Under the watchful eyes of parents and friends, Tom has to be craftier than ever, and indeed he is. Whether he’s cleverly pulling an out-and-out swindle so as to not be caught or solving a train robbery and murder, Tom’s Great Brain never fails.
Six books in, the Great Brain series is starting to wear a little thin. Even Fitzgerald seems to be struggling, as The Return of the Great Brain is a little lackluster and repetitive. We have the same Tom shenanigans, the same J.D. who constantly is getting guilt-tripped by Tom and is easily tricked by him, and even some of the same sort of non-swindling events that have happened in previous books.
I will say, it was nice to see that for the most part, Tom actually does things that aren’t necessarily considered swindles. The threat from the last book of the kids refusing to talk to him is still very real. He makes lots of money, sure, but he does it honestly—minus one or two things he does that are a bit eyebrow-raising. It’s a good reminder that Tom is actually quite smart and could be very successful if he can stop conning people into giving him things.
Besides Tom’s swindles/half-swindles/games, there are a few other things that happen that once again serve as a vehicle to show off Tom’s intelligence. He helps start a school, thwart a train robbery, and saves a boy’s life. Fitzgerald does include one amusing incident that neither Tom nor any of the other boys can solve or understand: romance.
I liked the glimpse of “honest Tom” that we got in The Return of the Great Brain, but the formula is starting to get too repetitive and boring for me. I like that Fitzgerald is able to come up with new things every book, but he also reuses a lot of things, such as J.D.’s gullibleness, and is pretty repetitive in terms of writing. I’m glad there are only two books left, because I don’t want to get as tired of this series as I did another repetitive series (Redwall).
Nothing is quite the same at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies since Sara Crewe went away with the Indian gentleman. Lavinia is once again the girls’ leader, but she hungers for a more interesting life. Lottie is still busy making mischief, as is the new neighbor, the red-headed boy. Alice, the new maid, brings a breath of fresh air and slapdash practicality to the school. But Sara is much missed—especially by her best friend, Ermengarde. Can Ermengarde find her own way and be happy? Will she and Sara ever be able to be friends the way they were before?
Wishing for Tomorrow is an unofficial sequel to A Little Princess, detailing the story of Lavinia, Lottie, Ermengarde, and the Miss Minchins after Sara leaves with the Indian gentleman. You can tell this story was crafted with a lot of love for the original, and McKay tries her best to fulfill the same sort of magical, imaginative quality of the first. It’s much more plainly written than A Little Princess, obviously, and full of more humor, though it’s lacking a lot of depth.
What McKay does best with this sequel is to flesh out Lavinia and Miss Minchin into relatable characters. They were rather one-note villains in the original, especially Lavinia, and though she’s not the main character (that would be Ermengarde), Lavinia is given lots of the spotlight to become a more understandable character than she was in A Little Princess. As for Miss Minchin, McKay gives her a backstory and some redemptive qualities, though she’s not as bitter and cold as was Burnett’s Miss Minchin, making her more likely to be sympathetic.
Besides Lavinia and Miss Minchin, the other characters are rather one-note, even Ermengarde. Ermengarde isn’t as clueless or as insipid, which is probably a good thing, but she’s rather bland all the same (though I liked a lot of her development). Lottie turned from a spoiled brat into a troublemaking child who enjoys doing work with the maid, Alice. This is where McKay starts to stretch the boundary of historical realism a little bit, as it’s hard to believe that in a city still dominated by class, Lottie would ever mix with “the help.” However, Alice herself is as far from a typical servant of the time as you might get, being a rather independent, no-nonsense sort of person—which, again, stretches the boundaries of realism. If the story took place in, say, 1950s London as opposed to turn-of-the-century London, then everything fits much better, in my opinion. It seems clear to me that McKay set aside historical realism in order to make a self-indulgent sequel.
Overall, though Wishing for Tomorrow isn’t a bad book, it pales in comparison to A Little Princess. It lacks color, realism, and depth, paling in comparison to the brilliant, complex message of A Little Princess and its imaginative quality. There’s a bit of redemption for Lavinia and Miss Minchin, but other than that, the book is largely forgettable.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, was published in 2016 by Algonquin Young Readers.
Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge—with dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Deadly birds with uncertain intentions flock nearby. A volcano, quiet for centuries, rumbles just beneath the earth’s surface. And the woman with the Tiger’s heart is on the prowl…
I’ve heard many, many good things about The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I was excited to read it because of those good things, and also because the cover is gorgeous, and also because I like it when fantasy novels win Newbery Medals. However, I think a case of “high expectations ruin things” struck because I ended up not enjoying the book as much as I thought I would. I wasn’t disappointed, per se, simply…underwhelmed.
I’ve read a Barnhill book before (The Witch’s Boy), and I described Barnhill’s writing style as “really interesting,” a style that “I wasn’t sure whether to love or hate.” And that still holds true for this book. At times, I thought the writing was really beautiful. And then, at other times, I thought it was far too random, or too strange, and tried too hard to be poetic (all the mad woman’s scenes were like this). All of the “normal” scenes were fine (I actually really enjoyed the vibe of those scenes, a little quirky/whimsical), but the minute magic was introduced, things fell apart a little, at least for me.
The story also was a little underwhelming, in that the beginning stretched on for far too long and the solution happened too quickly. Once the ruined castle was introduced, I was hoping for some sort of “let’s do things properly this time and save the world” plot, but instead Luna stares at a witch in an extremely anticlimactic conflict (I don’t expect my kid’s stories to have brilliant magical battles, but still, I thought the villain would put up more of a fight). There’s also lots of things Barnhill included that I thought were never fully explained (which is possibly why I was expecting more out of the abandoned castle).
In addition, the message seemed oddly simplistic, and was also combined with a strange “we are all one” theme that was conveyed in that strange, floaty writing style that I didn’t really enjoy. I like beautiful writing, but a lot of the times I feel as if authors, in their attempts to write things in memorable ways, go too far and end up losing some solidness (Maggie Stiefvater writes this way; Barnhill does it slightly better). It’s hard to describe what it is that I mean.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon has a beautiful cover and at times beautiful writing. However, in some scenes I felt the writing became too over-the-top. The plot is fairly simplistic, with an uneven pace and an anticlimactic finish, and the message is simplistic as well, in addition to being vaguely New Age-y and strange. I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book more, as I really have heard lots of good things about it.
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.
Disclaimer: Engraved on the Heart, by Tara Johnson, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Reluctant debutante Keziah Montgomery lives beneath the weighty expectations of her staunch Confederate family, forced to keep her epilepsy secret for fear of a scandal. As the tensions of the Civil War arrive on their doorstep in Savannah, Keziah sees little cause for balls and courting. Despite her discomfort, she cannot imagine an escape from her familial confines—until her old schoolmate Micah shows her a life-changing truth that sets her feet on a new path . . . as a conductor in the Underground Railroad. Dr. Micah Greyson never hesitates to answer the call of duty, no matter how dangerous, until the enchanting Keziah walks back into his life and turns his well-ordered plans upside down. Torn between the life he has always known in Savannah and the fight for abolition, Micah struggles to discern God’s plan amid such turbulent times. Battling an angry fiancé, a war-tattered brother, bounty hunters, and their own personal demons, Keziah and Micah must decide if true love is worth the price . . . and if they are strong enough to survive the unyielding pain of war.
My rating: 2/5
I was interested by the summary of Engraved on the Heart and hoped it would have lots of intrigue, sneaking around, and escapes from danger, as befitting the promise of the setting. I hoped the romance would be imaginative and original, though I didn’t really have too many high hopes in that regard.
I like it when authors introduce elements to the story that make it more unique, and Johnson did that with Keziah’s epilepsy and exploring the stigma associated with the illness. I wish a little bit more time had been spent on it, but at least it was an established part of her character. I liked Keziah in general and her characterization and growth were overall okay. Micah was a typical male love interest, and he didn’t stand out much in any way except for a bit at the end.
Most of the events that happened in regards to the Underground Railroad were pretty plausible. I recently read a book on the topic, and much of what happens in the book fits. My only quibble is that I don’t remember if they were actually calling it “the Underground Railroad” at the time. I also think getting a peek at Lucy’s escape would have been nice, since it seemed way too easy and vague. I also thought the way the plan was communicated to Lucy was dubious and unbelievable.
I won’t harp on the romance, but I’m getting tired of reading the same thing over and over. This romance played out exactly like most of the others in these sorts of books: love at first sight between two amazingly good-looking people, one or both has secret doubts about pursuing a relationship, they refuse to be in a relationship but still end up holding each other/kissing, etc. etc. etc. This romance in particular seemed incredibly similar to the one in the last book I read. It’s clear this sort of thing is being written to please the audience rather than to give something original and exploratory.
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.
Disclaimer: Together Forever, by Jody Hedlund, was provided by Bethany House. It is the sequel to With You Always. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Determined to find her lost younger sister, Marianne Neumann takes a job as a placing agent with the Children’s Aid Society in 1858 New York. She not only hopes to offer children a better life, but prays she’ll be able to discover whether Sophie ended up leaving the city on an orphan train so they can finally be reunited. Andrew Brady, her fellow agent on her first placing-out trip, is a former schoolteacher who has an easy way with the children, frim but tender and friendly. Underneath his charm and handsome looks, though, seems to linger a grief that won’t go away—and a secret from his past that he keeps hidden. As the two team up, placing orphans in the small railroad towns of Illinois, they find themselves growing ever closer…until a shocking tragedy threatens to upend all their work and change on of their live forever.
Together Forever tells the story of Marianne Neumann, the sister of Elise Neumann, the protagonist of With You Always. It picks up the plot thread of the missing sister, Sophie, but very quickly sidelines it for a romantic plot, which is a shame because the missing sister is the most interesting thing in this series, and sidelining it really doesn’t make the characters look good. More on that later on.
Yes, this book is a romance, and boy, does Hedlund really accentuate that. There must be dozens of stolen glances, thoughts about the “delicate” and “elegant” features of Marianne, thoughts about the “strong jaw” and “toned muscles” and “warm skin” of Drew, and multiple looks of desire and/or longing. Hedlund throws in some events to make everything more dramatic, such as Reinhold, Marianne’s old (one-sided) flame, a murder, and some orphan children.
I think I might have enjoyed this book more, cliché and unoriginal romance (and tropes used) aside, if I had liked the characters more. Yet there’s really nothing that drew me to Marianne or Drew; Reinhold was more interesting, but showed up far too infrequently. The problem with Drew is that he’s the typical love interest in these sorts of books—handsome, clever, capable, with some sort of dark past that comes back to haunt him and throw tension into his relationship. The problem with Marianne is that for someone who’s so devoted to finding her sister, she barely does anything about it throughout the course of the book beyond read a few pages of a logbook. The rest of the time she’s busy flirting with Drew, when she’s not contemplating the fate of the orphans she’s placing. There’s also an absurd scene at the end of the novel that’s so contrived and such a dumb thing to do on the part of the characters (basically, it’s a “let’s pretend this is real and lead people on even though we know it’s wrong” decision) that I grew even more irritated at the romance between the two.
If I can say anything positive about Together Forever, it’s that Hedlund shows both sides of the orphan train. She shows it from the point of view of how many of the orphans who would have been living on the streets otherwise were taken in by families and cared for. But she also shows the side of how well those families will treat those orphans, as well as the idea that it’s basically selling children. I appreciated that she showed both perspectives. To be honest, I didn’t know much about orphan trains, so it was nice to see that part of history explored. The rest of the book, though, I could have done without.
Leigh has been Boyd Henshaw’s Number One fan ever since his second grade teacher read aloud Ways to Amuse a Dog. Now in the sixth grade, Leigh lives with his mother and is “the new kid” in school. Troubled by the absence of his father, a cross-country trucker, and angry because a mysterious lunchbag thief steals all the “good stuff” from his lunch, Leigh feels his only friend is Mr. Fridley, the school custodian. Then Leigh’s teacher assigns a project that requires writing letters asking questions of authors. Naturally Leigh chooses to write to Mr. Henshaw, whose surprising answer changes Leigh’s life.
Dear Mr. Henshaw is the story of Leigh Botts, who, through letters to the author Boyd Henshaw and later in diary entries, describes his troubles with writing, his plans to catch a lunchbox thief, and his feelings over his absentee father. It touches on divorce and poverty in the subtle, but noticeable, way of a children’s book, and Cleary does a good job of describing the sort of complicated feelings that can arise in a child when dealing with an absent father.
I liked Dear Mr. Henshaw, but it lacked the depth and memorability that I enjoy in children’s books. It’s the sort of book that I enjoy in the moment, but after I put it down I forget about it. It didn’t grip me or move me in a profound way; it’s not a book that I will look back at with delight. I think it is a book that is, in the moment, good for adults and good for children, but struggles to have much of a lasting impact.
I do think Dear Mr. Henshaw’s portrayal of divorce is one of the better portrayals out there, which is probably why it won a Newbery Medal. Also, the “letters to an author” motif was well done. However, the rest of it was forgettable and in a broad sea of medal winners, Cleary’s book gets lost under the waves.