The most interesting thing about the Caroline books (and all of the prequel Little House books) is that there’s always a strong undercurrent of fiction. Though the original Little House books were fictionalized in many places, Wilder was drawing off of her own memory. Here, all we get is a brief author’s note at the beginning stating that some of the events were drawn from Martha Carpenter’s letters to Laura. Yet in this book, Caroline spends a whole 9 months away from Martha, so how much of what happens in here is true?
I don’t really mind one way or another, to be honest.
Whether Wilkins is making this up as she goes along or if there’s some sort of
letter or memory she’s taking pieces from, the book is still true to the
Caroline of the past books, and I had to smile at all the little nods Wilkins
gives to the Little House books, particularly Caroline’s delaine and the gold
pin. Is this where she actually got the dress, or did Wilkins throw it in
because it seemed plausible? While it doesn’t ultimately matter to me, or
affect the book, it is something interesting that I pondered briefly.
Anyway, the book itself is fine. I enjoyed the look at
Milwaukee and high-society life that it gives—it’s a nice refresher from the
previous books. That look also serves to center Caroline as well as to
seriously contrast her life with the life she could have had. There’s some
deliberate juxtapositions drawn here, and it’s interesting to read this book
knowing that Caroline, who (according to the book) could have gotten a
successful teaching job in the society and moved into a higher class, chose to
go back home and ultimately marry a farmer. There’s even the brief flirtation
with James, a sort of “could have” moment that Wilkins explores.
Maybe the book was mainly experimental, maybe it was
actually based on parts of Caroline’s life. Either way, while it’s not quite as
good as some of the stronger books that came before it, it serves as a good
contrast with the earlier books, and a nice bridge to the final book, where
Caroline returns home to teach and ends up falling in love with one Charles
Ingalls. That book’s probably my favorite because I’m a romantic at heart.
I really enjoy the format of these books, I do, but the two books after Illuminaehave been incredibly underwhelming in terms of plot and characters. It’s like Kaufman and Kristoff were so enamored with what they created in Illuminae that they decided to recreate it two more times in Gemina and Obsidio—and in Obsidio, it really shows.
Let’s start with the characters. Just like in the first two books, it’s a boy and girl who are romantically linked. Except this time, neither character is interesting in the slightest. In fact, the book barely focuses on Asha and Rhys—most of its concern is taken up with Kady, Ezra, Hannah, and Nik, the protagonists of the first two stories—and they are incredibly flat characters. Rhys was cardboard. Asha was barely better. Their actions are predictable, as is the plot.
Speaking of the plot, I suppose there’s really nothing
wrong with it at its core, but I’m not thrilled with the way the authors go
about revealing things. Kaufman and Kristoff play the same plot tricks they did
in the first two books, meaning each reveal is blindingly obvious. They pull
the “That person died!—Or did they?” trick several times, even though the
format of the book and what was revealed previously immediately proves it
wrong. They attempt to obscure the characters’ plan to get rid of Evil Corporation,
but there are so many out-of-character moments that it’s incredibly obvious
that they’re playing a part (the most prominent example being Rhys’s “betrayal”
of Asha—it’s incredibly obvious that it’s part of the Obsidio plan. If you kill
four people to protect your girlfriend, you’re not going to turn on her because
your buddy died in an explosion that your girlfriend insisted she knew nothing
The most interesting character by far is AIDAN, since
it represents all of the moral dilemmas that run throughout the book (mostly
consisting of doing bad things for good reasons). AIDAN is a great example of
how logical evil acts can be. To be honest, it’s a bit disturbing to scroll
through Goodreads reviews and see people gushing about how much they love
AIDAN. I think they mean they love
the characterization of AIDAN, not that they love mass murderers (I hope); I
found AIDAN interesting, and probably the best character in the book (though
some parts were really dumb, like its overly descriptive speech (why?) and the
“AIs can have feelings too” subplot), but I certainly didn’t love it.
So, overall, I think Illuminae was the strongest by far of the three books. Gemina was a weaker repeat (with some
new and interesting things) of the first, while Obsidio revealed just how much Kaufman and Kristoff were relying on
old plot tropes to pull through. I can’t help but feel that I read the same
book three times, or at least the same idea of a book three times.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Lots of (censored) swearing, sexual innuendo, violence.
Girl Dreaming is a memoir written in free verse about
the early life of the author, Jacqueline Woodson. It won a ton of awards,
including the Coretta Scott King and the Newbery Honor. To be honest, if I
liked free verse novels better, I might have enjoyed this book more, but
despite all of its accolades, I struggled to get immersed in the book.
Perhaps it’s because not too much happens. The blurb makes the book seem much more exciting than it actually is, and while there are certainly trials and tribulations that Jacqueline must overcome, things like segregation and the Civil Rights Movement aren’t nearly as prominent as the blurb suggests (or maybe I missed a TON of subtle things, which could also be true). Instead, the book is much more involved with family affairs, as well as Jacqueline figuring out what she enjoys and what she wants to do. I suppose I should have expected that, since this is a memoir, but going into it I didn’t realize it was one, so my mind took some time to adjust (and perhaps this is why I didn’t really enjoy reading it).
And, well, I found it a bit boring. There simply wasn’t enough going on to hold my interest. This is a book that is really meant for the reflective reader—slow, character-focused, with lots to think about—and I’m not one of those. I did like some things about it, like the interesting religious focus (you don’t often get books about Jehovah’s Witnesses) and the focus on family. I think the book was deserving of all of its awards, but it simply wasn’t my cup of tea at all.
Kaufman and Kristoff work hard in Gemina to both continue the same tone and format that made Illuminae so unique, and to add new elements to tell the story in—in this case, a journal as well as some different forms of chatrooms. In addition, they ramp up some of the other formats with pictures and other visual elements, making for some rather beautiful pages.
The plot is virtually the same as Illuminae, except a bit less thrilling, less interesting characters, and now-stale gimmicks. Instead of a virus threatening to turn everyone into raging manaics, there’s alien predators who make you basically comatose. They’re kinda scary, but mostly just distracting from the real villains, the hit squad who come to the station to murder/cover up the tracks of the villainy caused by Evil Corporation. Except the hit squad gets summarily dispatched one by one by said alien predators and three teenagers.
Hanna and Nik are the “required” boy/girl protagonist love interests of this novel, though the romance is completely unnecessary and even distracting at times. It adds nothing to either the characters or the plot. It’s like the authors think that because the protagonists are a girl and a boy, there must be a romance between them.Far more interesting is the relationship between Hanna and Jackson, her boyfriend at the start of the novel (Hanna suddenly falls in love with Nik instead along the way).
Another gripe I have with the book is the fact that
the authors pulled so many bait-and-switches that the end felt cheap. For one
brief moment I wondered if Kaufman and Kristoff were actually going to do what
I initially thought—and I was both disgruntled and thrilled that they would do
something so daring. Instead, though, they pulled something they did in the
first book (more plot repetition) and reversed everything (twice, really!),
which left me feeling just disgruntled.
I did like Gemina,
I really did, but if the third book is a repeat of plot and character
tropes like this one was, then I might stop enjoying this series.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Lots of (censored) swearing, sexual innuendo, violence.
A City Tossed and Broken: The Diary of Minnie Bonner, by Judy Blundell, was published in 2013 by Scholastic.
This Dear America tackles the San Francisco earthquake
and subsequent devastating fire in 1906. Also, since these revamped books seem
to focus more on an overarching plot than most of the older ones, there’s also
Minnie pretending to be the daughter of the rich family she was working for after
the deaths of the entire family.
For the historical aspect, I thought Blundell did a
good job of showing the devastation of the earthquake and the fear that
followed when fire destroyed half the town. She also hinted at, and explained
further in the historical notes at the end, the corruption that ruled San
Francisco during that time.
For the story aspect, it was…all right. I thought the
story was rife with convenience and dumb decisions made for the plot, however.
Like the whole Lily/Minnie switch, which rested entirely on a technicality and
a very well-timed dress change. At least the buildup, and follow-up, to that
was explained well. Then there’s Minnie’s time as Lily, which was okay—most of
what she did was believable, up until the end when she said, “I’m going to tell
Mr. Crandall,” and then never did for some reason that was never explained or
I did like the overall theme of family and sticking together, and Blundell does a good job of showing the difference between trade/”new” money in society, and inherited “old” money, as well as class (and racial) conflict. However, A City Tossed and Broken is missing some sort of spark to really make it sing, to make it stand out and make me say, “Now that’s a Dear America book!” So far, I still think the revamped books are subpar at best.
Wing is the last book in the Claidi Journals series, but it
feels like it didn’t need to be. In fact, the only thing it contributes, beyond
love angst and Girl Power, is resolution about what’s been going on in the
House for the past three books.
It’s not that I didn’t dislike the book. I liked it fine. Claidi has as unique and funny a
voice as always, and the addition of Thu made for some great fun. We also learn
a lot of things about Claidi that are kinda neat, in a “that wasn’t really
necessary, but all right, that’s cool” kind of way. And she and Argul finally
get married (and then only exchange about ten words to each other, it seems
like) and have their happy ending, so there’s that.
However, the whole book just…isn’t that necessary.
There are a lot of characters brought back, and a lot of resolution for them,
but that all happens very quickly. The majority of the book is Claidi wandering
through Ustareth’s created continent by herself, feeling lonely and jealous—or
at least that’s what it felt like. Even before that, Claidi was alone, despite
marrying Argul. And Lee throws so much stuff at the reader in the end that the
whole pace of the book is thrown off. Nothing that was revealed in this book
really changes anything from the first three, and it mostly just seems that Lee
really wanted Claidi to be someone special, so she wrote a whole book about it.
I can’t say that Wolf Wing is bad, as
I did enjoy it. But I found it, ultimately, underwhelming and unnecessary.
Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Girl Behind the Red Rope by Ted and Rachelle Dekker, from Revell. All opinions are my own.
I’ve never read anything by Ted Dekker before; all I know
about him is that he’s a fairly popular Christian author. He teamed up with his
daughter, also an author, for The Girl
Behind the Red Rope, a book that initially seems to simply be about a cult
that separates itself from the world, but then delves into Frank Peretti
territory with ghosts/beings called the Fury and a Jesus-like child named Eli.
Honestly, I think I would have preferred this book simply to
be an exploration of a cult—I probably would have been far more interested.
That’s not to say the book was bad, but I’m simply not a fan of angels and
demons materializing and talking to people (or attacking them). And the fact
that I wasn’t prepared for the supernatural aspect of this book meant that I
was really confused by a lot of things that happened at the beginning until I
realized the true genre of the book. Perhaps that’s something I would have
expected going in if I knew more about Ted Dekker’s works, though.
The Girl Behind the Red Rope is hugely allegorical, to the point of repetitiveness at times. There’s the demon creatures “the Fury,” whom the cult at Haven Valley have cut themselves off from the world to avoid. There’s the mysterious being Sylous, who appears to Rose, the leader, and gives ominous advice. Then there’sEli, who I think isn’t supposed to be Jesus, but is also supposed to be Jesus…it’s a bit confusing. All the allegory/metaphors are compounded at the end by everyone talking about love, light, darkness, and fear for pages on end—that’s where the repetitiveness comes in. Actually, the whole thing reminded me just a little bit of John Bibee’s Spirit Flyer series, which used similar ideas of demons, chains, and captivity to illustrate biblical concepts. Just like in this book, though, Bibee also went a bit overboard in capturing his image.
I suppose I can see why Ted Dekker is popular, but for me,
I’d prefer a book that tones down the symbolism explanation and is a bit less
on-the-nose in regards to theme. The Girl
Behind the Red Rope is far from terrible, but my expectation of it was
“cult novel” and I got “cult novel but with demons and angels,” which isn’t
really my favorite thing to read.
Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.
I would rank Dreams in the Golden Country on the middle-upper scale of Dear America books. It accomplishes so much more than similar immigration stories like So Far From Home; it talks about immigration (and even describes, very briefly, the Northern Ireland and Ireland conflict, as well as Catholicism versus Protestantism), labor unions, factory work, and even suffragism. And of course, it deals with the transition from a predominantly Jewish culture to one that is influenced by many religions and cultures.
Not being Jewish, I don’t know how good Lasky was at
communicating Jewish beliefs or history. It fits with what I’ve read and heard
about, so nothing jumped out at me as being overwhelming inaccurate. I liked
the way Lasky showed both the Jewish people, like Papa, who seemed to enjoy the
freedom a new country gave them in their religion and the Jewish people, like
Mama, who wanted to hold on to the traditions for as long as possible. It made
for some interesting conflict as well as some potential for discussion over
keeping traditions and culture in a new place.
The main flaw with this book is the way Lasky
continually plays up the “golden country” aspect of the novel. I don’t doubt
that many immigrants viewed it that way, nor do I necessarily disagree with
that idea or with what Zipporah felt in the book, but the way it was handled in
the book was clunky and felt a bit too orchestrated, like Lasky was putting it
in there because of the “Dear America” on the title, rather than as a natural
extension of Zipporah’s thoughts and feelings.
Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, by Katherine Woodfine,
was published in 2015 by Egmont.
However, the story itself was a bit tepid. The
characters are not developed enough, and so though on paper the four of them
are quite interesting, in “the flesh” they lack a little oomph. Sophie is
spirited, but flat; Joe is mysterious, but flat; Billy is…something; Lil is
funny, but flat…you get the picture. And it doesn’t help that the mystery is
framed in such a way that all four characters have to do something that
stretches just beyond the bounds of believability. At least in Sophie’s case,
part of it is mentioned as part of the villain’s ultimate plan—the fact that
she was able to figure out so much stuff was solely due to the fact that she
was placed in the exact room with all of the information and the secret door
leading to the hiding place of the stolen goods, something another character
points out as suspicious for the villain to have done without an ulterior
motive (and thank goodness for that because otherwise that would have been the
epitome of plot convenience).
However, the others get no such excuse, and so we have
Lil lurking in corners and somehow never being discovered despite her lack of
ability to be nonchalant or secretive about anything, and Billy successfully
switching papers because no one even bothers to check that the envelope he
handed over was the right one, and Joe being…well, being not really anything at
all except the person who tells them about the Baron.
I mean, I’m sure for the audience that is intended, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is
probably quite exciting and sufficiently mysterious, and the characters are interesting (if flat). But for me,
the solving of the mystery and a lot of the action relied way too much on plot
Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt, was published in 1966 by Modern Curriculum Press.
Up a Road Slowly reminds me a little bit of a lesser Anne of Green Gables, but much more of Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm, except with less moralizing and a nicer aunt. It’s the story of Julie, who at seven goes to live with her aunt after her mother dies and learns new meanings of love and family as she deals with her older sister getting married, her wild uncle, school rivalries, the death of a student, and boyfriends. However, like Rebecca, it’s much less tongue-in-cheek than Anne, and it uses a ton of plot tropes and language that is extremely reminiscent of older literature and really dates the book.
The writing style is a little old-fashioned and very mature-sounding, even when Julie is only seven (something that is a bit jarring until you get used to it). As Julie gets older, however, she grows into her voice, and I do believe the whole thing is supposed to suggest that Julie is writing this as a memoir from later on in her life. As far as plot and theme go, I thought Hunt’s messages were very good, though they were often delivered in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable today. For example, the description of Agnes, Julie’s classmate who suffered from some sort of mental disability, made me wince a bit, though that would have been an acceptable description in the 60s. However, the language as a whole really gives the book much more of an old-fashioned feel than I think the decade it was written in warrants.
There’s also quite a few dark themes hidden in the book, the most notable being Julie’s old friend Carlotta being “sent away” for the winter after scandal erupts (i.e. she was pregnant). The book as a whole is really quite mature for a children’s book, much more suited for a young adult audience (who would probably understand it and enjoy it more).
I enjoyed Up a
Road Slowly, but I didn’t find it overly impressive, and I think it’s too
dated to really stand out. The maturity of the themes and the writing were
welcome after some of the rather more childish books I’ve read, but that limits
the audience as well as alienates them. A good book, but not one I’d probably