Death Marked by Leah Cypess

Death Marked, by Leah Cypess, was published in 2015 by Greenwillow. It is the sequel to Death Sworn.

Rating: 2/5

Death Sworn eventually won me over, but Death Marked failed from the start. Death Marked takes what happened in Death Sworn and makes it entirely irrelevant. It is not a pleasant sensation to finish a book and feel as if the author has simply wasted your time.

The problem with Death Marked is manifold. First, there’s the worldbuilding—again. I talked about the thin worldbuilding in the first book, but this book does almost nothing to build on that. Ileni is once again stuck in a series of cavelike rooms, only venturing out once or twice. There is never any sense of an established world or order. Though “Renegai” is mentioned several times over, there is never a clear idea of what they are beyond “magicians in exile.” The city that Ileni walks in is featureless and boring, its only purpose to show off the Imperial’s way of harvesting magic.

Second, there’s the plot, or the lack of it. I can only assume Cypess intends this as a character-driven novel, but fails for a multitude of reasons (one of which being Ileni herself, which I’ll get to). Motives are too thin or unclear, the characters too one-note, the poorly built world too vague for any solid development to occur. The book ends with no momentum gained, nor any clear resolution reached—only a vague sense that the characters are happy where they are, even though nothing was accomplished.

The biggest problem, I found, was Ileni herself. She spends far too long floundering in confusion, then switching from loyalty to treachery and back again according to what suits her in the moment. She spends the majority of the book reacting (poorly) to what goes on around her, rather than being proactive. The most annoying aspect of her character is her behavior towards magic, the irritating push-and-pull, addictive thinking. She spends one chapter reveling in her power, the next swearing she’ll never use it again, the next using magic and then guiltily remembering her promise. It’s a never-ending cycle, and though I think Cypess wants it to add to her character, I found it annoying.

She also spends far too much time screaming.

The only thing I did like was the departure from that romance-heavy take of the first book. In fact, Cypess actually ends the book with something I didn’t actually think she would do, but didn’t actually mind, as it fit well. Other than that, though Death Marked was a disappointment through and through, almost a complete waste of time.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CqmzY5

Advertisements

1940 Newbery Medal: Daniel Boone by James Daugherty

Daniel Boone, by James Daugherty, was published in 1939 by Viking.

Rating: 2/5

Daniel Boone is a pretty outdated book, as you might expect from having been written in 1939. I’m sure the information about Boone is mostly correct, and I appreciated how Daugherty included excerpts from actual documents of the time, but many people today would take issue with the portrayal of the Indians, as well as their depictions in the illustrations.

I thought the illustrations were gorgeous most of the time, and though the pictures of the Indians I thought represented a stereotypical, outdated representation, there were a couple of pictures that I thought were actually quite powerful (there is one of an Indian man standing over a woman who is cradling a dead child (or possibly an adult) in her arms, and the text facing it is from a Seneca Indian speech about the destruction of his race). So, while Daugherty does continue to portray Indians as thoughtless warriors who attack the settlers, day in and day out, there are glimpses that he is trying to explain their side of things, though he doesn’t really succeed.

To be honest, the one thing I took away from this book was not the story of Daniel Boone. It was the thought that the entire conflict between the settlers and the Indians portrayed in this book was just really sad. The story that Daugherty laid out was just reaction versus reaction: one side gets mad at the other for some reason, so they attack; the other side reacts in vengeance; the first side reacts in vengeance; the other side reacts in vengeance; so on and so forth.

As far as biographies go, there are certainly better ones for Daniel Boone than Daugherty’s. There are just too many problems with Daniel Boone. Some of those are due to the modern age, some are due to the culture’s thirst for what they deem an acceptable portrayal of Native Americans. This book won the Newbery Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake, and in my opinion, Wilder’s book was far superior.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Biography

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2RwfT4f

1941 Newbery Medal: Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry

Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, was published in 1940 by Macmillan.

Rating: 2/5

Call It Courage wasn’t a bad book, but it simply didn’t grip me. I found it boring. It’s an adventure/survival book based in Polynesia, telling the story of Mafatu and his quest to become courageous by leaving his island and striking out on his own. Sperry traveled extensively, mainly in the Polynesia/Hawaii area, and it shows in his knowledge of Polynesian culture and language.

The only knowledge I have of Polynesia is from the movie Moana, so it was funny to read about Moana the Sea God and Maui the God of the Fishermen. Other bits of the Polynesian language are scattered about and always translated at some point so that the reader isn’t totally confused. It seems accurate and representative of the culture, though I’m sure someone more versed would be able to say it was or was not more definitively.

This definitely reads like a 1940s book: the language is much more cumbersome and complex, and so it might be difficult for a modern child to read. As I stated above, this book really didn’t interest me in the slightest, but I can see a boy or an adventurous girl really enjoying it. I’m glad it was short, as there was nothing in the book to pull me in or compel me to keep reading. Call It Courage is definitely one of the more forgettable Newbery Medals that I’ve read. Not as bad as The Dark Frigate, but pretty low.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2C5zPks

The Shattering by Kathryn Lasky

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

Rating: 2/5

The Shattering as always been, in my eyes, the weakest of the first six Ga’Hoole books. I’ve always viewed reading it with a sort of dread, or exasperation. The tale of Soren’s sister and the trials she faces in this book just never piqued my interest.

Perhaps it’s the cheesiness of the dialogue and some of the scenes. These books have never been the best in terms of writing, but this book has too many moments where things felt too clunky, or too amateur, or something. It’s especially noticeable when Primrose is worried about her friendship with Eglantine, and during the mealtimes.

Important things do happen in this book, but they seem almost unimportant. There is quite big news concerning Nyra, foreshadowing books 7 & 8, and the big reveal at the end is appropriate menacing, but everything feels like such a throwaway, filler meant to take up a book.

In addition, even the plight Eglantine finds herself in feels weak. Things happen far too quickly, and Eglantine overcomes obstacles too quickly. Despite the threat of shattering, Eglantine seems more like a gullible kid than a victim of a devious plot. There is simply too much that wasn’t done in order to make things move smoothly and make the threat more menacing.

While moving the plot along in some directions, The Shattering mostly stalls, creating a threadbare plot that relies on cheesy dialogue and undeveloped characterization. Eglantine is more of an annoyance than a hero in the book, which is a shame since it’s so heavily focused on her. It’s a step in the wrong direction for Lasky and the Ga’Hoole books.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

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

Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George

Saturdays at Sea, by Jessica Day George, was published in 2017 by Bloomsbury. It is the sequel to Fridays with the Wizards.

Rating: 2/5

The Castle Glower series is going a little bit the way of the Wide-Awake Princess series, in my opinion. There’s definitely things that are connecting each book together, but each book feels more tired and pale than the last. Too many old formulas are used and there’s not enough variety to spice it up. As a book series for kids, I can see why George would rely on things she’s used before, but for me as an adult, I don’t find them compelling any more.

If you like the formula of the Castle Glower books, Saturdays at Sea continues in that vein: lots of griffins, some humor, and more revelations about the world and the Castle. In this book, unicorns are introduced, and I did like that George showed them in a different way than you would think of unicorns today. There’s a small amount of characterization with Celie, but not really enough to make any big character changes. These sorts of books tend to keep their characters the same way, which is probably what bothers me the most.

If you liked the other books in the series, then you will probably enjoy this one, too. For me, it was too much of the same-old, same-old, and not enough improvement in terms of writing or characterization. There’s also way too many animals—dogs and griffins and now unicorns are all jostling for position alongside a healthy cast of characters. I definitely would go back and read Tuesdays at the Castle again, but I don’t really want to re-read any of the others.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

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

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

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