The White Stag, by Kate Seredy, was published in 1937 by Viking.
For generations the tribes of Huns and Magyars had moved relentlessly westward, obeying the voices of their pagan gods, which compelled them to follow the elusive white stag to their promised homeland. They swept Europe, all the while pursuing their vision of the stag. Their leader was called Attila, and the land Hungary. Here is the epic story of their tribal migration and their fierce leader—known to us even today.
The White Stag is a fairy-tale-esque narrative of the Huns’ migration from Asia to Europe. Seredy states from the beginning that she is more concerned with story than fact, and the narrative she unfolds rings very much like a mythic tale. The imagery of the book is quite striking, and the story flows well and has beautiful description.
The story focuses on three leaders of the Huns, though I believe only Attila has been historically confirmed. The first leader is Nimrod, of biblical fame, who has twin sons, Hunor and Magyar. Hunor’s son, Bendeguz, is the second leader, and the third is Attila. Seredy weaves mythological elements into the narrative in order to emphasize the importance of Attila—fiery portents, the White Stag, Moonmaidens, prophesy, sacrifices, a flaming sword, and eagles.
However, despite the beauty of the writing and the whole mythological aspect, I did find it hard to relate to the book. Seredy’s grand overtures in her heralding of the coming of Attila was a bit hard to take. I get that Attila was an important historical figure, but the godlike way he’s described in this book is too much. Seredy is trying to portray it from the Hun’s history, of course, but a downside of that is that it does make the book seem wildly over-the-top and grandiose. It also makes it seem as if Seredy is extolling Attila beyond what he deserves.
I ended The White Stag a little disgruntled, since the way Seredy portrayed Attila sat wrong with me. There was too much hero and not enough reality, not to mention the fact that none of the book is historically grounded beyond brief sketches. And I do understand that Seredy wanted to get away from fact and go back to the mythological, imaginative way of telling history, but I feel as if she took it too far in that direction. A good balance between the two would have been much better.
So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.
In the diary account of her journey from Ireland in 1847 and of her work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, fourteen-year-old Mary reveals a great longing for her family.
So Far From Home recounts not only the Irish potato famine that ravished Ireland (that killed about one million people), but the harsh work environment and living conditions that awaited the Irish immigrants in America. Denenberg also offers a look at the “cradle” of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowell textile mills.
Denenberg only superficially sketches a picture of the desperation and determination of some immigrants—desperate to work, determined to send money home for the families—and how business owners used that to their advantage. He does capture this well, though this Dear America book is weaker than others. I wish he had also focused on the way the Irish were treated beyond work environment—there is next to no mention of Catholicism (a strange religion to Protestant New England) and though there is some mention of Mary being bullied by other girls, there is no indication that it is her ethnicity that is prompting it.
Denenberg mostly focuses on the textile mills and their dangers, though I feel he could have done much more. It seems in his determination to portray as much as possible of that time period, he missed out on depth and richness. Mary is a phlegmatic protagonist, there only as a vehicle for the viewer to experience the time period. She has no characterization, no “body,” no memorability. This is further accentuated by the epilogue, which is the most depressing and least developed epilogue of a Dear America book so far. It seems even Denenberg didn’t know what to do with Mary.
It’s hard for me to believe that So Far From Home is written by the same author who wrote One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping (one of my absolute favorite Dear America books). So Far From Home is good for a general look at the Irish potato famine, Irish immigration, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, but Denenberg misses many opportunities for lasting impressions and Mary is a forgettable character.
Disclaimer: Joey, by Jennifer Marshall Bleakley, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
With her fledgling horse ranch, Hope Reins, in dire financial trouble, the last thing Kim Tschirret needed was one more problem. But when she met Joey, a former prizewinning jumper who had been abandoned, neglected, and malnourished to the point of blindness, she saw in him the same God-given potential she saw in every abused and abandoned child her ministry was created to serve. So, despite the challenges that would come with caring for a blind and wounded horse, Kim took a leap of faith and brought Joey home to Hope Reins. But as Joey struggled to adapt to his new surroundings, trainers, and pasture-mate, the staff’s confidence began to falter. Could Joey learn to trust again-to connect with the children who needed him so badly? What if they couldn’t take care of Joey? And how much longer could they afford to try?
My rating: 2/5
I was excited to receive and read Joey because, let’s face it, horse books were my favorite type of books growing up, and even today I still get excited to read one. And it seemed intriguing–a blind horse? Horse-centered therapy? Count me in!
However, I rated this book low for a reason, though it didn’t have anything to do with the horses. In fact, the horses were the best part of the book, though admittedly it did confuse me a bit when the first part of the book focused more on Speckles than on Joey. But I enjoyed reading about the training and the innovative ways the trainers helped Joey overcome his blindness. The interaction of the horses and the children was sweet; Bleakley definitely shows how an animal-centered therapy works, as well as its effectiveness overall.
So, it wasn’t the horses that I had a problem. It was the rest of the book–the humans, basically, and the overly preachy and sentimental tone. I had an incredibly difficult time telling the three main characters apart (Kim, Sarah, and Lauren), as their voices all sounded the same. I soon learned to differentiate by various traits always brought up–Lauren and her knee, Sarah and her inner monologues about her inadequacies. However, what also confused me was the voice of the characters. I initially thought Sarah was a teenager until she brought up a husband, which really threw me for a loop. Her voice just sounded like something more akin to a teenager’s than an adult’s to me. There was also a random romance thrown in with her that came out of nowhere; I understand that this is more nonfiction, but at least hint that she’s getting into a relationship with the vet before suddenly mentioning them holding hands when they rarely appear “on page” with each other and exchange conversation. Lauren also sounded younger, but she mentions a husband and kids earlier on so it was easier to adjust.
I also didn’t much like the sentimental, preachy tone of the book, and this is definitely more reflective of my personality than of anything really wrong with the book itself. I hate preachiness, especially extended preachiness that sounds scripted, and I’m not fond of sentimentality. If a grief scene stretches for longer than a paragraph, I already think it’s overdone. I recognize the sadness of the book, and what losing horses means to the people who work at Hope Reins, but I’d prefer not to linger on one particular scene for pages at a time.
I really didn’t like the tone or the confusing characters who blended into one another, but the book is focused on the horses, and the horses really do shine. This is a great advertisement for Hope Reins, if nothing else.
The Girl from Felony Bay, by J. E. Thompson, was published in 2003 by HarperCollins.
I’m not going to lie to you, the last year has been rougher than alligator hide for me and my dad. You see, he’s in the hospital in a coma since his accident a year back, wherein he was framed for a terrible crime he didn’t commit. Our home, Reward Plantation, had to be sold to pay off his debt to society, so I’m stuck living with my Uncle Charlie, who, even in the few hours a day when he’s sober, ain’t exactly your ideal parental role model. And I managed to run afoul of Jimmy Simmons, the meanest kid in the sixth grade, and on the last day of school no less. But things just got a bit more interesting. Turns out the new family that moved into Reward Plantation has a daughter named Bee, who is the same age as I am. And she’s just as curious about all the No Trespassing signs and holes being dug out by Felony Bay, in the corner of what used to be my home. Seems like someone’s been poking around a mystery that dates all the way back to the Civil War—and it just might be the same someone who framed my dad. I’m Abbey, by the way. Abbey Force. And if it takes all summer, I’m going to find out what’s happening out on Felony Bay, and maybe even clear my dad’s name.
The Girl from Felony Bay has lots of things I’m not fond of in middle grade books in general and mysteries in particular. The protagonist, Abbey, is decent enough, though she makes one too many “puzzle piece mystery” guesses for my liking, as well as ends the book with five pages of moralizing and “these are the lessons I learned” summation. I also didn’t much like the scene at the end where she gives the usual “whodunit” spiel and then all the police officers applaud her, literally, and mention how incredibly smart and wonderful she is. It’s clunky and awkward and the reader really didn’t need the reminder that Abbey can solve things quickly, since that’s what she spends the entire book doing.
I did like how Thompson brought up the idea of heir’s property, though I’m not sure how well he incorporates it into the mystery as a whole. I suppose it was relevant in the sense that it got Abbey and Bee wondering about why the property had been sold in the first place.
As for the mystery itself, it was pretty far-fetched, in my opinion, or perhaps that was simply a problem with the delivery of it. The writing really wasn’t the best. The characterization also didn’t help, with the villains being bland and one-note and their machinations unbelievable. The whole thing was simply clunky and poorly executed and developed.
The Girl From Felony Bay was pretty much a disappointment from start to finish. The mystery was slapdash and unbelievable, Abbey spent her time wavering between Action Girl and Brilliant Detective Girl, with awkward conversations from the adults around her interspersed, and the whole thing was simply far too sloppy and mediocre for me to enjoy it. The cover art, at least, is cool and intriguing (Brett Helquist!), but nothing else about the book is.
When Great-granny Brown packed up and moved to the Women’s City Club in Boston, Miss Hickory was faced with the problem of spending a severe New Hampshire winter alone. This might not have been so bad if Miss Hickory had not been a country woman whose body was an apple-wood twig and whose head was a hickory nut. Also, if her house had been built of stronger material than corncobs, however neatly notched and glued together. This is the story of how she survived those trying months, in the company of neighbors like Crow, who was tough, wise, and kindly; Bull Frog, who lost his winter clothes; Ground Hog, a surly man afraid of his own shadow, and a host of others. It is a fantasy full of the peculiar charm of the New Hampshire countryside, seen from an angle which most of us, city-bound in the winter, know little about.
I’ve mostly liked and enjoyed all the Newbery Medal books so far, with a few notable exceptions (The Dark Frigate, *shudder*). Miss Hickory, unfortunately, falls on the side of the ones I didn’t like so much. It’s not that the quality is low or the messages are poor. I actually thought the message was quite good; there was a delightful little scene in the middle where Miss Hickory realizes the cost of hardheadedness.
My main problem with Miss Hickory is that the premise is strange (a living wooden doll existing alongside animals, with no explanation as to how she got there or as to why there isn’t any creature like her) and there is nothing that reconciles that strangeness, and the ending is downright creepy. Seriously, I read the end and almost couldn’t believe what was happening; there is also a rather frightening picture to go along with the event. If, as an adult, I feel creeped out by a book, how much more so would a child be frightened? I don’t think Bailey meant it to be frightening, of course, and the story does end happily, if strangely, but nevertheless, it was the wrong tone to end the book on.
Miss Hickory should have been like Hitty, Her First Hundred Years or similar, but the premise was too strange and unexplained (why does Miss Hickory even exist? Why aren’t there others like her?) and the ending was frightening. I enjoyed the book, I suppose, but it’s definitely not a standout nor is it a book I would recommend to anyone anytime soon. Not every Newbery can be perfect, but it’s still a little disappointing.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: None, unless you count the end where Miss Hickory loses her head and then her headless body walks around.
Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Children’s
“You have seen through Great-granny Brown’s kitchen window how deep the snowdrifts are in New Hampshire. I’ll wager that there were days when you could not see through the windows. The winters are long and hard here, Miss Hickory. “
“What could one do?” she begged. She would not believe him yet.
“Don’t feel too badly, as if they had forgotten you,” he said kindly. “Ann has other matters than dolls to fill her mind now. Great-granny Brown was born and bred in New Hampshire. She expects you to be equal to any weather. You’ll have to move, Miss Hickory.”
Disclaimer: Things I Never Told You, by Beth K. Vogt, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
It’s been ten years since Payton Thatcher’s twin sister died in an accident, forcing the entire family to cope in whatever ways they could. Now a lone twin, Payton reinvents herself as a partner in a successful part-planning business and is doing just fine—as long as she manages to hold her memories and her family at arm’s length. But with the announcement of her middle sister Jillian’s engagement, Payton’s party-planning skills are called into action. Which means working alongside Johann, her opinionated oldest sister, who always seems ready for a fight. They can only hope a wedding might be just the occasion to heal the resentment and jealousy that divides them…until a frightening diagnosis threatens Jillian’s plans for the future. As old wounds reopen and the family faces the possibility of yet another tragedy, the Thatchers must decide if they will pull together or be driven apart for good.
Maybe I’ve read too many young adult suspense novels, but when I read the summary of Things I Never Told You, I expected something much darker than what I actually got. The title, so reminiscent of popular YA titles, didn’t help. In fact, since I went into the book expecting deep, dark secrets to be revealed, the actual revelation of the “things I never told” seemed cheapened. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
The story is told from multiple points of view: Payton, the focus character, in first person, and Jillian and Zach in third person. I got used to the switching from first to third after a while, but initially it was really jarring. I also wondered why Vogt even bothered with first person if she wanted to use multiple viewpoints; the first person didn’t contribute much to Payton’s character and it seems pointless to utilize if you’re just going to switch to third when you want to convey other characters’ thoughts. The point of first person is that you don’tget the other character’s thoughts.
The story mainly focuses on Payton and the “things she’s never told” regarding the death of her sister (which, contrary to my thoughts, aren’t dark at all, merely the sort of thing you might expect after a traumatic event), though focus is also spent on her relationship with her family, especially her sisters, and her sister’s battle with breast cancer. The characters are all right—perhaps too pointedly flawed, or maybe too pointedly focused on their own inadequacies. If reading this book was supposed to make me feel as if I could relate to the characters and overcome similar thoughts, then Vogt didn’t really succeed. Eventually, all I wanted was for the self-pity and self-deprecation to stop.
I did like how Vogt handled the Thatcher’s lack of faith, and I liked that she didn’t create any sort of conversion scene that are usually so cheesy and overdone. I did think she dropped the ball in terms of Jillian, though. Jillian, I felt, needed the comfort that Payton received from thinking about God just as much, if not more, than Payton. She spends the whole book focusing on happy, positive thoughts that I thought for sure Vogt would connect it to the joy of Christianity. Unfortunately, that never happens, and instead Jillian’s happiness is tied to material things. A missed opportunity, and one that may have proved more powerful than Payton’s story.
Though I expected a dark, thriller-like reveal to the story, and the reveal of what Payton was actually hiding seem cheap in comparison, I did like a few aspects of Things I Never Told You. The family dynamic was interesting, and though I felt there were lots of missed opportunities, the way the book ended was realistic. The take on breast cancer was respectful, but just as shocking and sad as it would be in real life. However, the viewpoint was jarring and poorly executed, the title is too reminiscent of YA novels (and thus juvenile for an adult book), the characters spent too long wallowing in their own perceived flaws, and a beautiful opportunity for Jillian to see where true joy lies is completely set aside in favor of furthering a romantic plotline. It’s an average take on sorrow, buried secrets, and guilt, but is nowhere close to memorable or inspiring.
The Disappearance of Emily H., by Barrie Summy, was published in 2015 by Delacorte.
Emily Huvar vanished without a trace. And the clues are right beneath Raine’s fingertips. Literally, Raine isn’t like other eighth graders. One touch of a glittering sparkle that only Raine can see, and she’s swept into a memory from the past. If she touches enough sparkles, she can piece together what happened to Emily. When Raine realizes that the cliquey group of girls making her life miserable know more than they’re letting on about Emily’s disappearance, she has to do something. She’ll use her supernatural gift for good…to fight evil. But is it too late to save Emily?
The Disappearance of Emily H. takes a potentially interesting premise and then immediately drags it through the mud, combining teenage drama that’s just a tad too over-the-top (I feel like the author simply watched a bunch of teenage movies about high school and then based her book off of that) with a weak, unnecessary supernatural aspect. I nearly didn’t finish the book.
The protagonist, Raine, has this supernatural ability: she can sense people’s memories when she touches “sparkles.” It’s mentioned briefly at the beginning of the book that this ability of hers has been muted lately. Yet there is no explanation given as to why, nor is this problem addressed or solved later on. Anyway, she uses this ability to help unravel the mystery surrounding a local girl’s disappearance, as well as spy on the people around her and bring down a bully by resorting to bullying.
The one redeemable aspect of this book was that Summy didn’t have the final mystery behind Emily’s disappearance be the dumb reason I thought it was initially. If it had been, I would have ended the book extremely angry. As it was, I ended the book mildly disgusted instead (my exact words were, after closing the novel, “What a dumb book.”).
There’s literally no reason for Raine to have the ability to sense people’s memories; all it does is serve to alienate her so that the Mean Girl Jessica (*Jennifer) can be even more Mean. The mystery could have been solved with just a little bit of extra detective work and if Raine had paid more attention to what people were telling her. I especially didn’t like that Raine and Shirlee dealt with Jessica (*Jennifer) by being bullies themselves, basically blackmailing her into submission. That’s a great way to teach kids about how to overcome their problems.
The Disappearance of Emily H. has an unnecessary premise, a mystery that completely falls flat once motives are figured out (though it’s much more reasonable than what I initially thought it to be), boring characters, and over-the-top melodrama that is poorly described and poorly resolved. I probably would not have had the patience to finish this novel if I hadn’t read most of it on a plane without much else to do.
Abigail Jane Stewart returns in this brand-new sequel to The Winter of Red Snow. The Revolutionary War toils on, but the Stewart family can no longer avoid getting involved. Abby’s father joins the Continental Army, while Abby, her mother, and her siblings become camp followers. They face daily hardships alongside the troops and continue to spend time helping the Washingtons. Filled with romance and adventure, Abby’s frontline view of the war captures the heartache and bravery of the soldiers, as well as the steep cost of freedom
Cannons at Dawn is part of the reboot of Dear America, where Scholastic revamped the covers and commissioned several new stories. It’s the sequel to The Winter of Red Snow, and as far as I could tell/remember, it accurately recounts the further adventures of Abigail Jane Stewart as told in the epilogue of the first book.
That’s really the main problem with this book—The Winter of Red Snow, and any Dear America book in general, are ill-suited for sequels since each book has an epilogue that tells what happens to the characters after the events of the book. Cannons at Dawn is a useless book in terms of characterization; since we already know what happens to Abigail and her family, the book gives us nothing new. The only purpose the book serves is to describe more of the Revolutionary War: the betrayal of Benedict Arnold, the French support, the Battle of Yorktown. It’s puzzling as to why Scholastic chose this book to serve as a sequel and why no other book was given one. It also highlights the weaknesses of sequels in a series like this in the first place.
The best part of Dear America is its “day-in-the-life” quality. Extending that in as forced of a way as Cannons at Dawn lessens the impact and makes each book less special—especially the sequel, since there’s nothing special about a story that we already heard at the end of the first book.
I don’t know if I’m making any sense as to my feelings, but basically, I think that for a series such as Dear America, sequels are a bad idea. Needlessly extending one historical event to tell us the continuing story of someone for whom we already know the continuing story makes for a slow, dull book. Not even the historical aspects make Cannons at Dawn appealing to me—not when it goes against the “one and done” aspect of the series in general, as well as makes everything long and drawn-out. Gregory is one of my favorite Dear America authors, but I’m going to pretend this book doesn’t exist in the series.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Abigail becomes pregnant, but the book ends before she delivers the baby. Children’s books don’t usually include things like this, so that’s why I’m stating it as a warning.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“Were you with the soldiers at Stony Point?” I asked.
His green eyes flashed with pride. “Drummer, first class. From the court of King George.”
We stared at him. It took a moment for us to understand.
“You’re a Redcoat!” Sally cried.
He seemed surprised. “You are loyal to the King, yes?”
Disclaimer: A Most Noble Heir, by Susan Anne Mason, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
When stable hand Nolan Price learns from his dying mother that he is actually the son of the Earl of Stainsby, his plans for a future with kitchen maid Hannah Burnham are shattered. Once he is officially acknowledged as the earl’s heir, Nolan will be forbidden to marry beneath his station. Unwilling to give up the girl he loves, he devises a plan to elope—believing once their marriage is sanctioned by God that Lord Stainsby will be forced to accept their union. However, as Nolan struggles to learn the ways of the aristocracy, he finds himself caught between his dreams for tomorrow ad his father’s demanding expectations. Forces work to keep the couple apart at every turn, and a solution to remain together seems farther and farther away. With Nolan’s new life pulling him irrevocably away from Hannah, it seems only a miracle will bring them back together.
My rating: 2/5
A Most Noble Heir (titles like these need to disappear. Overused and unoriginal) is an interesting historical romance. It doesn’t do a whole lot to improve on old tropes, but at least the premise is interesting. Plus, it’s refreshing to read a book where the romantic interests marry at the beginning of the book. Even though Nolan and Hannah go over a lot of familiar ground in terms of romantic tropes, the way it’s framed makes it appear as if it’s fresh and new. I would have preferred actually fresh and new, but it was a pleasanter romance to read since they got married early on. I just wish there had been a bit less convenience in terms of Hannah’s station and slightly more tension (Nolan always thinks about the class divide between them and how it will affect their social standing, but it is never voiced nor noticed by anyone else, making his worries seem pointless. Plus, Iris showing up means that the point is moot—not that anyone actually seemed to care).
I really enjoyed the development of Nolan’s relationship with his father, though I wish it had been less jerky in terms of pace. Since we never actually see Nolan’s “aristocracy lessons,” the only glimpses of him with his father we get are when they are fighting, so the reader has to fill in the gaps for himself. However, I really enjoyed the scenes from Edward’s point of view (Nolan is a bit of a bland character), and they did a much better job of showing the development of the father-son relationship than Nolan’s did.
Nolan is a bland, forgettable character (and hardly noble, as the title suggests), but Hannah is secretly my kindred spirit. Her struggles in the novel, especially the ones revealed closer to the end of the book in regard to her own perception of herself, are similar to things I have felt in the past, and having those addressed in the book helped me just as they helped Hannah. She’s a bland character, too, when I look past the parts in the book that really connected me to her (the only non-bland characters are Edward and Iris, and Iris goes too far in the other direction), but she’s definitely a character I’ll remember.
A Most Noble Heir does strive to reinvent old tropes, and ends up doing it somewhat, but there’s still too much reliance on cliché, predictable romantic tropes. The characters are bland and boring, except for Edward and moments from Hannah, and many of the concerns that drive the tension of the plot seem flimsy and weak when compared with what Mason has shown us. It’s an intriguing premise, but it falls on its face one too many times.
Alis and her parents have made the long journey from England to help settle the New World. They arrive on the island of Roanoke, a beautiful land of wide-open spaces, filled with tall trees and blue sky—a far cry from the dark, dirty streets of London. Alis is astounded by the natural beauty that surrounds her, but she wishes she had someone to share it all with—a friend. Kimi has every right to hate the English. They’ve brought illness and death to her people and killed her sister. Still, while she doesn’t trust them, she observes the new settlers curiously. When she first sets eyes on Alis, the only girl among them, Kimi can’t help but to seek her out. Despite not speaking the same language, the girls become as close as sisters. But rising tensions between the Roanoke and the English threaten to pull them apart. As the unrest continues to spread, Alis and Kimi will have to risk everything to stay together.
Blue Birds is a novel in verse, and I suppose it was good going into the novel that I didn’t know it was, otherwise it’s unlikely I would have picked it up if I had known. I don’t have anything against novels in verse, but I much prefer prose. The story is about the Lost Colony of Roanoke, although the main character, Alis, is completely fictional (there were no girls in that colony). Despite this, Rose stays as close to the little historical information we have about Roanoke as she can.
I believe the most commonly accepted theory as to what happened to the colony is that they integrated with some Native American tribe, whether on the mainland or on Croatoan. Rose does not explore this aspect, per se, which I found disappointing—I would have liked to seen some speculation. She does, however, tell everything (as far as we know) leading up to the colony leaving Roanoke.
It’s an interesting book, and I liked the fact that it takes place in a setting that I don’t think is in much historical fiction, but it failed to grip me beyond its historical speculation. I found Alis’s decision at the end of the novel wildly unbelievable, and I didn’t think the bond between Kimi and Alis was as significant or as strong as the novel wants to make you think—hence the unbelievability of Alis’s decision.
Despite its interesting setting and its look at the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Blue Birds is, sadly, forgettable. The characters were bland, Alis made strange decisions that made no sense, and I didn’t feel the connection between the two main characters. I also didn’t see the point of writing everything in verse, but at least it made for a quick, if unmemorable, read.