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
Across the Rolling River introduces Charles Ingalls and his family to the series, and young Charlie is just as boisterous and expressive as Pa Ingalls from the Little House books. It also shows us his family, who end up so close to the Quiner family (there are three Quiner/Ingalls marriages in total: Caroline, Henry, and Eliza marry Charles, Polly, and Peter respectively). Also appearing in this book are Mr. Carpenter and his son Charlie (who marries Martha eventually), who haven’t appeared since the third book, Little Clearing in the Woods.
This book really is starting to accelerate Caroline’s
development and love of learning. We see her desire to be a schoolteacher, with
the influence of her teacher, Miss May, as well as her budding attraction to
Charles Ingalls (though she’s only 12 in this book). We also see the
pearl-handled pen of the Little House books, as this book details how Caroline
came to get it.
I didn’t feel this book was as exciting or interesting
as On Top of Concord Hill, but I
liked the introduction of the Ingalls family as well as the exploration of
Caroline’s desires and wishes. The author switch seemed smooth, which can be
hard to accomplish even for a children’s book. All in all, not my favorite
Caroline book, but one that sets up a lot of things for the next two books.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is like Anne of Green Gables, except with less charm and less fun shenanigans. Rebecca is imaginative, spunky, lively, and bright; everyone seems to love or admire her. She daydreams, speaks (and writes) poetry, has a forceful personality, wins people over with her charm, and is all together dazzling. Wiggin attempts to give her flaws, but those are quickly brushed aside in order to emphasize all of her good qualities.
I speak as if I didn’t like the book, though I did. I
simply think Anne of Green Gables came
along a few years later and accomplished what I think Wiggin meant to
accomplish with this book. Despite the fact that Rebecca is practically perfect
in every way, I found the book charming and sweet. I especially adored Adam
Ladd, and Rebecca and Aunt Miranda’s relationship.
Speaking of Adam Ladd, I thought for quite a long time
that the book would end with some sort of romance. The book is old and dated,
so for many people the age gap and the circumstances might be bothersome.
However, I’ve read too much Jane Austen—and I know that Wiggin is representing
reality back then (girls got married young, and sometimes they got married to
men far older than they). So, I wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or
pleased that the book ends with almost a destruction of the Adam/Rebecca
relationship: not through a fight or anything like that, but simply through
Adam’s realization that Rebecca was still a child (though there is a hint that
in the future something could happen).
I read Rebecca
of Sunnybrook Farm and almost immediately thought of Anne of Green Gables, which perhaps wasn’t quite fair to Wiggin
because I expected wit and charm along with my dreamy protagonist (though
Rebecca isn’t quite as dreamy as Anne), and got a little bit of charm with no
wit or comedy. The book takes itself very seriously, and though I enjoyed the
story, it did start to grate towards the end and I started wishing for
something fun to happen.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Adam Ladd is 34 at the end of the novel, and Rebecca is 17, but the romance is presented in such a way that it will probably fly right over younger readers’ heads.
Books written in the time of Jesus (a.k.a the early ADs and the Roman occupation of Israel) are hard for me to read. It always feels strange to have someone put words into Jesus’s mouth that aren’t the ones given in the Bible by people who were actually there. A part of me is always like, “Okay, well, it sounds good, but…” So, I’m basically the least well-suited person to thoroughly enjoy The Bronze Bow.
However, I did enjoy it, mostly. I mean, the plot is
blindingly obvious, but Speare does a great job of showing how the Jews hated
the Romans, and how they longed for someone to come and free them from Roman
control. Daniel and Joel both show different sides, with the outright hatred of
Daniel and the more reserved, religious dissent of Joel. And there are numerous
other facets of that time involved, too, like Leah, Daniel’s sister, and her
fear that is attributed to demonic possession, and all the Jewish laws and
customs as well.
And yes, Speare’s portrayal of Jesus did make me
uncomfortable, though I do think she did a fairly good job. And her description
of him did show me that she seemed to be writing from the Christian perspective
of him (the Son of God) rather than a more secular view of him (merely a
prophet/teacher), though she may have simply been borrowing from the Christian
tradition as opposed to being a Christian herself.
Mostly I really enjoyed Daniel’s transformation, which
I think was the most accurate representation in the book. There is, perhaps,
not quite enough build-up or resolution, but as a children’s book Speare
perhaps felt that a more abrupt change would work best. It is certainly
effective, and it shows even beyond the words Speare puts in Jesus’s mouth the
heart of his mission and of Christianity.
As I hoped, once the Quiner family moved to Concord,
the books started to get more interesting and memorable. In On Top of Concord Hill, the last book
Wilkes will write of this series, a stepfather, the Gold Rush, cholera, and
early frost all combine to create perhaps the most tension-filled book in the
series so far. Of course, it’s still very tame tension, but it’s much better
than what has been in the first three books.
This is also the first book that was written after the start of the Martha Years, which might explain why suddenly Caroline’s grandparents are mentioned more and why the cover has changed more and more to express similarity between the sets of books.
The thing I most enjoyed about this book was the
subtle, lovely hints we got at the Charlotte/Frederick Holbrook relationship. I’m
not sure whether in real life Charlotte married him for stability or love, but
in this book, it’s very sweet to see the way they interact with each other. I
am a huge fan of shy/quiet guy-marries-girl tropes, so perhaps that’s why this
book so far is my favorite of all the Caroline books (though there wasn’t much
competition, to be honest).
With an author change and the introduction of the
Ingalls family in the next book, it will be interesting to see if the Caroline
books will continue to improve or if the changes will be too jarring. I
remember quite liking the last book in the series, so I’m hopeful that the
change won’t shake things up too badly (or perhaps they will shake them up in a
Julie of the Wolves is one of the wilder, out-there children’s books I’ve read. George clearly loves survival novels, as she also wrote My Side of the Mountain. Julie of the Wolves, however, has the titular character surviving in the wilds of Alaska while also being accepted into a wolf pack. (!?)
The book’s premise is bonkers, and I honestly have no idea if any of the things that Miyax does to ingratiate herself into the wolf pack would actually work, especially since I know that wolf packs work differently than what was thought back when the book was written. But it does make the book incredibly interesting, so there’s that positive going for it.
I enjoyed the way George used Miyax’s name to
highlight important moments. She’s Miyax in the wilderness, Julie in
civilization, and then Julie again at the end of the book when she realizes
that she can’t live the way she wants. It’s interesting to see her struggle
with the realization that her father, the great Eskimo hunter, has succumbed to
the dominant ideas, and the way that his killing of Amaroq is almost akin to
the death of a lasting Eskimo culture. And her shedding of her name, Miyax, and
taking up the English name, Julie, is the last signal in the book that
everything has changed.
George is playing around with and showing a lot of
interesting and important ideas in Julie
of the Wolves, but it’s ruined slightly by the sheer “But would it work!?”
surreal angle of the basic plot. I’m also not sure how well explaining being
married at thirteen to the readers of this book would go, as well as the scary
scene in the middle where Daniel attacks Julie. And, to be honest, I think a
lot of the nuance in the book would fly over a younger reader’s head (you’d be
amazed at the sorts of things my high school students miss in books).
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Some slight, brief indication of domestic abuse/attempted rape.
Clearing in the Woods finally starts to lift the Caroline
books out of the pit of mediocrity they were sinking into. The family moving,
the hardships they face on the new land, the new people they meet—all combine
to form, if not a particularly dramatic book, at least enough tension to
generate some excitement and interest.
The first half of the book has some overly dramatic
conflict with wolves, delivered a bit clunkily, but once the family reaches
their new home, it settles down to a more realistic conflict as the family
struggles to get used to new surroundings. Caroline and Martha have a few
spats, and I wish Martha was more developed of a character so that the fights
would have more meaning instead of feeling so wooden.
The second half of the book is better than the first,
with the introduction of Mr. Holbrook. Despite my problems with Wilkes’
writing, I will say that she paints a very good picture of the financial
situation of the family. It is very clear that they struggle to put food on the
table, and so the kindness of Mr. Holbrook and the generosity of Mr. Kellogg
shine through even more.
It’s a shame that the Caroline Years don’t start out
quite as strong or interesting as the previous two series, but at last the
series seems to be improving. Little
Clearing in the Woods still shares some of the problems of the first two
books, but the second half promises better things to come.
Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Soul of an American President: The Untold Story of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Faith, by Alan Sears, Craig Osten, and Ryan Cole, from Baker Books. All opinions are my own.
I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction lately, especially about people or events in history, so when Baker offered this book, I decided to read it. The book mainly focuses on, as the title suggests, the path of Eisenhower’s faith through his life. I appreciated that the authors mentioned straight away that they weren’t looking to glorify Eisenhower, but to portray his journey as realistically as possible, flaws and all. Mainly, they seemed concerned with combating the image of Eisenhower as irreligious or secular, so a great deal of time was spent showing the many ways Eisenhower showed his faith in his talks, writings, and actions.
I didn’t know much about Eisenhower before reading this
book, so there was tons of information that I learned, such as his role in
World War II and Operation Overlord. Also interesting was his early life and
his life at the beginning of his presidency when he was baptized. I was hoping
for a little more coverage of Eisenhower’s presidential policies and decisions;
the authors covered many, mostly positive, but I felt as if the majority of his
second term was swept by or summarized too broadly. It also felt a bit as if
the authors were picking and choosing what they wanted to highlight; I can’t
fault them for that because it’s nonfiction and they picked the focus, so of
course they would pick to explain more in detail what fits best with what they
want to say, but I still hoped for more detail.
This book is about Eisenhower’s faith, and that’s what it
gives you. I learned a lot about him and the majority of the book was interesting,
though towards the end I started to skim a little. I enjoyed most the
descriptions of his life and actions up through World War II (my favorite time
period to read about!), and overall I learned more about Eisenhower, his faith,
and the things he did and tried to do to help America than I ever knew before
(admittedly, very little).
Rating books is much harder than it might seem. I’ve
struggled with it a bit recently, as I’ve felt that 3 is now becoming my
default, go-to, “lazy” rating. Or perhaps I’m being more critical of the books
I read, which is why 4s and 5s come so rarely now. I’ve also been hit with a
slew of books that have simply failed to grasp my entire attention. All of
these things combined have been making me wonder if I really should be rating
some books a 4 that I initially think 3.
Maybe I could solve this with a half point system, but
I started the blog with that and then got rid of it for simplicity’s sake.
Anyway, I’m saying all this because I initially thought of rating I, Juan de Pareja a 4 merely because I didn’t want to give it a 3. I mean, I gave Merci Suárez Changes Gears a 3, and I feel like I enjoyed this book more than Medina’s. But, after thinking about it, I realized that I really didn’t have any desire to read the book again or think about it anymore (big factors in my ratings of books). And when I was reading it, I was more interested in finishing the book so I could pick up the other book I wanted to read more. So, it’s a 3.
I did actually enjoy lots of things about the book, though. I loved the writing, for some reason, or perhaps it was simply a nice change after the simplicity of Merci Suárez’s. I thought the content was interesting, especially the historical aspect. It’s a bit of an obscure topic, but some of my favorite historical fiction novels have those sorts of topics. And even though Juan’s attitudes towards slavery are a bit…well, not progressive, Borton de Treviño does throw in some different views about it, as well as lots of cultural information in general. Plus, Las Meninas is one of my favorite paintings, so it was cool to see some of the backstory (real and imagined) of Diego Velasquez and the slave-turned-painter Juan de Pareja.