Little City by the Lake by Celia Wilkins

Little City by the Lake, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2003 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Across the Rolling River.

Rating: 3/5        

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Obsidio, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2018 by Alfred A. Knopf. It is the sequel to Gemina.

Rating: 3/5

I really enjoy the format of these books, I do, but the two books after Illuminae have 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 about).

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.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, was published in 2014 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5

Brown 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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2J1Kwsy

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Gemina, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf. It is the sequel to Illuminae.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2phGy86

A City Tossed and Broken by Judy Blundell

A City Tossed and Broken: The Diary of Minnie Bonner, by Judy Blundell, was published in 2013 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I debated whether to rate A City Tossed and Broken 2 or 3, but I decided it was probably my favorite of the revamped Dear America books that I’ve read so far, so I gave it a 3.

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 shown.

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31YL1eH

Wolf Wing by Tanith Lee

Wolf Wing, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2002 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Queen.

Rating: 3/5

Wolf 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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2lxF0FJ

The Girl Behind the Red Rope by Ted Dekker and Rachelle Dekker

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.  

My rating: 3/5

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.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Realistic

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

Dreams in the Golden Country by Kathryn Lasky

Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2O4s5qu

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, by Katherine Woodfine, was published in 2015 by Egmont.

Rating: 3/5        

I like a good mystery, and the back cover of this book appealed to me immensely, with its invitation/advertisement style. The feel of the book is great, too—the front cover exactly exudes the department-store atmosphere that runs throughout the book, and I loved the setting. Though I must say that the hat descriptions that separated each part seemed out of place and didn’t really contribute anything beyond a pretty illustration.

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 convenience.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

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

1967 Newbery Medal: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt, was published in 1966 by Modern Curriculum Press.

Rating: 3/5

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 revisit.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31I8q3i