When Will This Cruel War Be Over? by Barry Denenberg

When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 1996 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

After the Native American books, I think When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is the next most notorious Dear America book. This one, though, is notorious for reasons that I don’t quite agree with. The main reason people seem to be up in arms about this book is the narrator’s, Emma’s, treatment of her family’s slaves. See, Emma actually treats the slaves well and even teaches the children to read and write. However, there’s still a chilling underlying inferiority applied to them, stated quite matter-of-factly and spouting “Christian” reasons for it. The main outcry against this portrayal is that people are upset that the author portrayed Emma as educating her slaves and being “nice” to them, which implies that the author is saying that slavery really wasn’t all that bad.

However, that interpretation is pretty nonsensical if you think about it. This is a Civil War diary of a Confederate girl. If Denenberg chose not to have the family abuse their slaves (presumably because of the audience), that does nothing to undermine the fact that Emma’s opinions about slavery are wrong. It does nothing to hide the way Emma talks about the slaves around her as if they were worth less than her, or how she thinks about them as if they were an alien species.

And if people are upset that children reading this book would absorb Emma’s thoughts and think slavery is fine or that the South was justified, then again I point out the words “Civil War” on the front. If the child doesn’t know about the Civil War and the different sides that were fighting, and that Emma is wrong, then that’s not the book’s fault.

And if people are upset that children reading this book might feel sympathetic for what happened to the South and to Southern families during the Civil War, then those people are unfeeling and heartless. Just because the Confederates were wrong does not mean they did not suffer during the war, and that does not mean we can’t feel sympathy for the people whose lives were upended and who lost family members.

I’m getting off my soap box now and moving on to the actual mechanics of the book.

So, When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is plagued by similar problems that plagued Denenberg’s other Dear America book, So Far From Home. The protagonist is whiny, too verbose, and does almost nothing except mope for the entire book. There is very little action in the book—all Emma does is react to the things happening around her. In addition, Denenberg’s choice to make the Simpson family religious is irritating, as he doesn’t explain the topic with nearly enough nuance or information and merely perpetuates stereotypes. I’ve already talked about Emma’s attitude and the portrayal of slavery as a whole, so I won’t address that, but that was by far the least irritating thing of the book in comparison to the pacing and the plot.

It’s a shame that both Civil War entries in the Dear America series are terrible. It’s like both authors were too nervous to actually delve into some good material. And now I’m scared that Denenberg’s One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping isn’t as good as I remember it being, based on his track record so far.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Confederate view of slavery and of the Civil War.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CdV31a

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1987 Newbery Medal: The Whipping Boy

The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman, was published in 1986 by Penguin.

Jemmy, once a poor boy living on the streets, now lives in a castle. As the whipping boy, he bears the punishment when Prince Brat misbehaves, for it is forbidden to spank, thrash, or whack the heir to the throne. The two boys have nothing in common and even less reason to like one another. But when they find themselves taken hostage after running away, they are left with no choice but to trust each other.

Rating: 2/5

I am legitimately confused as to how The Whipping Boy won the Newbery Medal. It’s not a bad book, but it’s so unremarkable that I can’t imagine why, out of all the books nominated (or however the process goes), this one won.

The book is short—not a point against it, just an observation—and thus an extremely quick read. There’s Jemmy, the whipping boy, the prince, who from the pictures seems to be French royalty (but who knows?), and various other characters. Basically, what happens is some sort of strange version of The Prince and the Pauper, but with bears and bandits and lots of exclamations of “Gaw!” Then it wraps up nicely with some character development for both Jemmy and the prince.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about it.

Okay, so, I can see that a lot of children probably would really enjoy it, as there are lots of escapades and some amusing scenes and dialogue. And the message, while delivered far too quickly due to the length of the book, is a good one about friendship and treating others right. But there wasn’t a whole lot of meat there for me, which is why I’m puzzling over why this was given a Newbery Medal. But I suppose not all children’s books can appeal to all adults.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

A Light in the Storm by Karen Hesse

A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, by Karen Hesse, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

A Light in the Storm is very reminiscent of Standing in the Light or All the Stars in the Sky—an interesting look at the historical time period, but overall seemingly unnecessary. It’s interesting to read about the conflict in Delaware, a slave state that didn’t join the Confederacy, and the way that conflict is mirrored in Amelia’s parents is well done, but this book doesn’t really deserve the title of “Civil War Diary,” in my opinion. It’s more about lighthouses than anything else. Of course, there is that north/south tension that exists, as well as some other issues (common-law marriages, abolitionists, runaway slaves, etc.) pertinent to that time, but I felt as if the epilogue taught me more about the Civil War than the actual diary did.

Sometimes it does feel as if these Dear America books are a little random in terms of setting and material. I really don’t think this story about a girl who helps with the upkeep of a lighthouse during the time of the Civil War is particularly inspiring or memorable. It does tell you a little bit about the attitudes in Delaware, which is perhaps what Scholastic and the author were trying to highlight, but all the same, A Light in the Storm feels like a particularly useless, unmemorable book in the Dear America series.

In addition, much like So Far From Home, the epilogue of this book is strange. Mostly because Hesse marries off the protagonist, but then has the husband go west while Amelia stays at home, never to see him again. Why? Is that supposed to be representative of reality? Or is that just to reiterate Amelia’s dedication to the lighthouse? Why not have the husband work side by side with her? What is even the point of an epilogue like that?

Anyway, A Light in the Storm details a little about the beginnings of the Civil War and the tension that tore the nation apart, especially in border states like Delaware, but as a story it fails to hold on to that historical setting and instead tells a jumbled tale of lighthouses, divorce, and vague conflict. It’s a book I forgot as soon as I finished reading, and it’s definitely not a standout in the series.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Divorce

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

Everything She Didn’t Say by Jane Kirkpatrick

Disclaimer: Everything She Didn’t Say, by Jane Kirkpatrick, was provided by Revell. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

In 1911, Carrie Strahorn wrote a memoir sharing some of the most exciting events of twenty-five years of shaping the American West with her husband, railroad promoter and writer Robert Strahorn. Nearly ten years later, she’s finally ready to reveal the secrets she hadn’t told anyone—even herself. Certain that her writings will be found only after her death, Carrie confronts the pain and disappointment of the pioneering life with startling honesty. She explores the danger a woman faces of losing herself within a relationship with a strong-willed man. She reaches for the courage to accept her own worth. Most of all she wonders, Can she ever feel truly at home in this rootless life?

My rating: 2/5

My experience with Jane Kirkpatrick has been similar for each book I’ve read of hers: appreciation for the historical research, but boredom with the overall storyline. As I mentioned in my review of The Road We Traveled, “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.” I really don’t understand how a book could be so carefully researched, yet falter in terms of pace and holding the reader’s attention entirely. Or perhaps I simply really don’t like books that just meander through someone’s life (as I’ve also mentioned in my previous Kirkpatrick reviews).

The format of the book was very confusing to me. Obviously, the excerpts at the end of each chapter are from Carrie Strahorn’s actual memoir, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage. Yet, there are also journal entries at the beginning of each chapter—are these Carrie’s actual journals, or things made up by Kirkpatrick so the reader knows what year it is? I also had issues with what I must assume are severe creative liberties on the part of Kirkpatrick—she is filling in the gaps only with what she thinks is true, based off of the few things we have about Carrie. And I get that this is historical fiction, not biography, but the picture built of Carrie, of this strong woman who managed to hold her own and carve her own path despite her husband’s domineering nature, is a fictionalized picture. Were any of the thoughts and feelings in this book part of the real Carrie Strahorn? I guess I wouldn’t mind so much if I didn’t think so highly of context and accuracy.

Everything We Didn’t Say is a good look at a woman I knew nothing about, who helped pave the way in the West along with her husband, Robert Strahorn. This Carrie is a good model, and there are many points in this book ripe for discussion, but I left the book without a solid idea of what the true Carrie was really like. In true Kirkpatrick style, the research was great, the actual grip and hook of the book…not so much. I would enjoy her so much more if she was just a little more exciting as a writer, though I suppose that’s the draw—she documents more aspects of someone’s life than simply the “exciting” parts. I just wish, in this case, there was more of a clear idea that she was actually crafting a true representation.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2xmsbA1

The Rescue by Kathryn Lasky

The Rescue, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2004 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Journey.

Ever since Soren was kidnapped and taken to the St. Aegolius School for Orphaned Owls, he has longed to see his sister, Eglantine, again. Now Eglantine is back in Soren’s life, but she’s been through an ordeal too terrible for words. And Ezylryb, Soren’s mentor, has disappeared. Deep within Soren’s gizzard, something more powerful than knowledge tells him there’s a connection between these mysterious events. In order to rescue Ezylryb, Soren must embark upon a perilous quest. It will bring him face-to-face with a force more dangerous than anything the rulers of St. Aggie’s could have devised-and a truth that threatens to destroy the owl kingdom.

Rating: 2/5

I usually have a pretty good memory of what happens in books, and even though my reading of The Journey and my reading of The Rescue were separated by a couple of weeks, I felt going in that I had a pretty good grasp of the world. However, the first chapter left me wildly confused, unsure if it was my memory or if Lasky had messed up.

For example, I’m fairly sure that in The Journey Ezylryb was the leader of the weather chaw and Elvan (or Poot or another owl) was the leader of the colliering chaw. However, in this book, Ezylryb is described as the leader of both. In addition, Soren keeps referring to Ezylryb as his “beloved” teacher, yet his sentiments in The Journey are disgruntlement that yields to respect (but not to the extent shown here). Perhaps it’s me, or maybe it’s Lasky. Either way, it took me a little bit to get into the novel.

Because of this confusion, I didn’t get as absorbed in The Rescue as the first two books. Some flaws/gaps in the worldbuilding stood out to me a lot more. For example, how did the flecks become magnetized? And is a fire caused by coals really hot enough to demagnetize them?

Other than those issues, The Rescue does a lot to expand on the mysteries revealed in The Journey. There’s also a huge reveal in this book that I remember shocked me silly when I first read these books. I think there should have been a bit more lead-up, but as it stands, it’s a great reveal and makes things more personal for the main characters.

Issues with worldbuilding details aside, The Rescue amps up the danger and intrigue, has a shocking reveal, and makes the stakes even higher for our intrepid band of owls. The ending is really cheesy (I’m not a fan of the songs and poems), but this book, and the series, is the perfect sort of adventure story for kids.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2p4XkUT

1951 Newbery Medal: Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates

Amos Fortune, Free Man, by Elizabeth Yates, was published in 1950 by Dutton.

Here is the riveting true story of Amos Fortune, born a price of the At-mun-shi tribe in Africa and abducted by slave traders at the age of fifteen. In Massachusetts, at the age of sixty, he finally bought his own freedom—and then continued on as a free man to become an expert tanner, a loving husband and father, and an active citizen until his death in 1801. But most importantly, he fulfilled his life’s dream by buying the freedom of many other enslaved people.

Rating: 2/5

Amos Fortune, Free Man tells the apparently true story of Amos Fortune, a prominent African-American citizen of New Hampshire. He was born in Africa, brought to America as a slave, purchased his freedom at the age of sixty, and then became a successful tanner. Yates includes excerpts from, presumably, actual historical documents, such as a “freedom paper” signed by Fortune’s owner, as well as the headstone inscriptions of Fortune and his wife. She also includes a list of places and people to thank for her research at the beginning of the novel, so it’s clear that this is a biographical work.

The one thing that really didn’t sit well with me is the tone of the book. I will forgo the apparent oddity of a Quaker, who is against slavery, buying a slave, since I can see not only the intentions behind it, but also the fact that apparently it actually happened. The tone, however, is one that is not so easily dismissible. The Quaker states that he won’t free Amos until Amos is “ready to be free.” Now, I get that mindset is important—perhaps the Quaker didn’t want to free Amos if he thought Amos would immediately go out and do something rash and get himself in trouble. But, still, this Quaker doesn’t even like slavery, so why does he agree to keep a slave? Quakers were historically vehemently against slavery, so it makes no sense.

The Quaker isn’t the only example. Amos himself has moments where he views the people around him in odd ways. And by odd, I mean in ways that don’t make a lot of sense. Perhaps that’s just my modern view imposing itself on a colonial culture, though. I don’t doubt some slaves viewed people as Amos did, but as I’ve said, the tone is just so odd and so hard to reconcile with what I know that it makes this a very difficult book to read.

Since we probably have very little on the real Amos Fortune, it’s hard to say how historically accurate Amos Fortune, Free Man is. I do know it’s likely a difficult book to read today, especially with some of the attitudes and ideas presented in the book. I don’t think it’s too controversial, but it has a tone that is so alien from what people hear today that it can’t help but seem jarring.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Slavery.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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

One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake

One Dark Throne, by Kendare Blake, was published in 2017 by HarperTeen. It is the sequel to Three Dark Crowns.

With the unforgettable events of the Quickening behind them and the Ascension Year underway, all bets are off. Katharine, once the weak and feeble sister, is stronger than ever before. Arsinoe, after discovering the truth about her powers, needs to figure out how to make her secret talent work in her favor without anyone finding out. And Mirabella, the elemental sister thought to be the certain Queen Crowned, faces attacks that put those around her in danger she can’t seem to prevent….Fennbirn’s deadliest queens must confront the one thing standing in their way of the crown: each other.

Rating: 2/5

One Dark Throne continues right where Three Dark Crowns left off, continuing the suspense and building the tension between the three sisters (and the three families and cities of the island). It’s a slower book than the first one, with the first 30% being romantic drama and the last 70% being a slow buildup to the final parts of the book.

I can see much more of the flaws of the world in this book that I couldn’t in the first, as the concept I found intriguing covered up a lot of it. However, One Dark Throne reveals just how thin the worldbuilding is—are there only these three cities and these three families that occupy them? There is no sense of scale, no sense of how big the island is or how many people live there, or even a clear sense of each city. Characters switch motives at the drop of a hat to propel the plot; there’s lots of tension between Jacob and Jules because of Mirabella, and while Blake seems to insinuate one thing, the characters ultimately end up doing another. Arsinoe indulges in low magic again, despite the failure in the first book, and it somehow works much better than before despite it being the same exact spell. Blake enjoys building tension with mystery and thinly veiled hints, but then fails to deliver fully, leaving confusing revelations behind.

And there are still way too many names thrown around to keep track of them all.

I heard that this book was supposed to be a duology, but is now a trilogy (or a quartet?). That puzzles me since this book isn’t stand-alone at all, nor does it end things satisfactorily; the decision must have been made before Blake published this book, which might explain why it’s so haphazard and filler-y in terms of plot.

I really enjoyed the concept of the first book, but nothing about One Dark Throne is compelling me to get the third book when it comes out. There are still mysteries to solve and questions to be answered, but nothing happened that made me care enough to find out what they are. The book is a mess of plot, character, and setting, behind a thin veneer of intriguing concept that becomes less intriguing the more you realize the flaws of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Nothing explicit, but there’s lots of kissing and obvious sexual connotations.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2MVHn1A

Trapped in Room 217 by Thomas Kingsley Troupe

Disclaimer: I received an advanced reading copy of Trapped in Room 217, by Thomas Kingsley Troupe, from NetGalley. Trapped in Room 217 will be published September 1st, 2018, by North Star Editions.

Jayla Walters isn’t sure what to expect when her father’s job uproots her and her brother, Dion, to Estes Park, Colorado. But right away, something doesn’t seem right with their hotel. Jayla soon discovers that their home for the week, Room 217 of the Stanley Hotel, is the most haunted place in all of Colorado. Barely asleep the first night, Jayla watches a ghostly woman walk toward her bed. And the ghost visits her room every night. What does the ghost want? And what happens when Jayla and Dion get in her way? Every state has its own spine-tingling stories of ghosts and mysterious hauntings grounded in its regional history. The Haunted States of America series uses real-life ghost lore as jumping off points to new, chilling tales. But beware: sometimes real life is stranger than fiction.

Rating: 2/5

Trapped in Room 217 is a basic, straightforward ghost story: no frills or bells or whistles attached. Jayla and her brother Dion, travel with their dad to a fancy hotel, which they soon discover has a haunted history. The plot is mostly concerned with the ghost that Jayla and her brother see in their own room. The author based the story off a real hotel and the ghosts after real ghost stories.

I prefer a bit more oomph to plots and writing, but I can tell that this sort of book would really appeal to younger readers. It’s straightforward and simple, and the ghost story has enough of a bite to generate some tension. Though not very much is explained, and Troupe jumps through a lot of hoops at the beginning to get his characters to the hotel, it’s a good ghost story for kids. As an adult, I thought for sure something much more sinister was going on, and so I was extremely let-down by the basic finish, but again, kids would probably love it.

Because this was an advanced reading copy, I’m not sure how much will change for the finished product. There will be illustrations, which I would have loved to see, and I did catch a few typos that will most likely be fixed. But I’m assuming that what I read, for the most part, is what the final copy will be like—and it simply wasn’t quite enticing enough to hold my attention.

Trapped in Room 217 would be perfect for kids. It’s simple, straightforward, and a good ghost story. But I felt that it was a bit of a let-down, since I read something much more sinister into it, and that the simplicity of it took away from my enjoyment of it. That’s purely a personal, subjective feeling, of course—I’m sure other adults may very well love this book!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Supernatural

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2nXA76x

Series Week IX (The Great Brain): The Great Brain Is Back

The Great Brain is Back, by John D. Fitzgerald, was published in 1995 by Dial.

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!

Rating: 2/5

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):

1. Me and My Little Brain

2. The Great Brain Reforms

3. More Adventures of the Great Brain

The Great Brain at the Academy

5. The Great Brain

6. The Great Brain Does it Again

7. The Return of the Great Brain

The Great Brain is Back

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None. 

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2Ba3Jah

Series Week IX (The Great Brain): The Return of the Great Brain

The Return of the Great Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald, was published in 1974 by Dial.

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.

Rating: 2/5

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).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None. 

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2M7ihwl