One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping by Barry Denenberg

One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I was nervous going into this book thinking that I would hate it, since I’ve strongly disliked Denenberg’s other Dear America books. I was especially nervous because this was my favorite DA book growing up. I’m not fond of having childhood favorites dissolve into mediocrity as an adult, though I’ve accepted it (and even welcomed it) for some. And I knew going on that I likely wouldn’t enjoy the book as much I remember.

The main flaw with this book is really that it’s dreadfully unbalanced. There’s the powerful, gut-punch of the first part, detailing the German invasion of Austria and the subsequent degrading treatment of the Jews. Denenberg implies very strongly that something terrible happened to Julie’s mother, though whether he’s suggesting rape or something else is up in the air. He does a fantastic job of describing exactly how terrifying and horrifying a time it must have been; every page is filled with panic and desperation.

Then, once Julie gets to New York, everything sort of falls apart a little. Suddenly, everything is theater, theater, theater. The tonal dissonance is jarring. And, okay, I suppose Denenberg was trying to tame the book down from the first part, and trying to suit the book for its audience with a bit less focus on terrible things, but I would have liked a little more remembrance of Austria and everything that happened there than what we got. It’s like Denenberg forgot he was writing a WWII book and instead was writing about theater in NYC. (Although, to be fair, the book is set in 1938, before America entered the war.)

One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping is no longer my favorite DA book. I think it’s the best one Denenberg has written so far, though, and certainly miles better than many of them. But the jarring change of tone between the first and second halves of the book and the lack of any good closure or discussion of what Julie went through in Austria are the biggest letdowns of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, anti-Semitism, death

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Chime, by Franny Billingsley, was published in 2011 by Dial.

Rating: 3/5        

This is one of those books where the cover art really doesn’t do the book any justice. In fact, the cover art is downright misleading, in my opinion. The cover suggests some sort of dark, brooding novel with Gothic undertones and maybe some paranormal activity mixed in. And, okay, the book is somewhat like that, but I don’t know…I felt a bit betrayed by the cover.

Chime is a book that certainly isn’t for everyone. It kind of isn’t really for me. The reason is that Billingsley’s prose is so lyrical and descriptive that it either draws people in or alienates them. I’m not a huge fan of prose like this, but I’m not against it, either, so I was really okay with it except in some parts where it got a little too nonsensical and poetic for my tastes.

The biggest selling point of Chime is the plot, really. Briony, convinced she’s a witch and destined to doom everyone around her, angsts and frets her way through most of the book, while falling in love with the town’s newest arrival, Eldric, and having to deal with the Old Ones (i.e., supernatural beings a la animism) in the swamp. Yet Billingsley draws a really nice balance between Briony’s angst and her strength, and the plot itself is really interesting, though perhaps a little too focused on Briony’s past rather than the present. Not everything is really made clear, such as the nature of Rose’s injury and its effect on her, and it gets a little too courtroom-drama-esque at the end, but the majority of it is woven beautifully together.

I’ve actually read this book before, while I was in college (I think), and I remembered it fairly well (though not the prose, strangely). It was not a surprisingly fantastic reread, but neither did it make me change my mind about the book. I enjoyed it when I read it then, and I enjoyed it now. Billingsley’s way of writing is really not my favorite, but the story itself—Briony’s struggles, her realizations about her past, and her relationship with Eldric—is beautifully done. 

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy/Supernatural

A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

A Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano, was published in 2018 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve picked up a few baking magic books before and liked them well enough to try another one, this one with a Mexican cultural background. A Dash of Trouble has Leo discover that her mother and sisters are witches (“brujas”) and that the bakery her family owns is used for baking up magic spells, like bread that can help you communicate with the dead or cookies that can fly.

I’m not overly fond of middle grade protagonists who think they have all the answers, but Meriano does a really good job of balancing Leo’s determination to do magic and her desire for success with her failures. I liked that Leo wasn’t perfect, that all the spells she did were just slightly off enough to reflect her inexperience, and that ultimately the book wasn’t about Leo being a Fabulous Witch, but about her relationship with her sisters, her mother, and her magic.

As far as the writing goes, everything was pretty basic and the plot was straightforward and simple. I’m not a fan of poetic or flowery language, but I’ve read so many books lately that have some form of descriptive language that this book felt a bit dry and bare-bones in lots of places. It made for a pretty quick read, though, and I didn’t notice any obvious signs of telling rather than showing, though there was lots of melodrama.

I’m not sure if I enjoyed A Dash of Trouble enough to pick up any more in the series, but I did find it pleasantly well-crafted and balanced. There also wasn’t any obvious agenda that the author was trying to push, so that’s a plus. You never can tell with MG these days.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Realistic

Magical Mischief by Anna Dale

Magical Mischief, by Anna Dale, was published in 2010 by Bloomsbury.

Rating: 3/5

If I had a favorite realistic fantasy trope, it would have to be something of the sort found in Magical Mischief: rogue magic inhabiting some place and the people who live/work there having to find a way to deal with it. In this book, the magic is in a bookshop, and the events that happen as Mr. Hardbattle (the owner) and his friends try and relocate the magic before he goes out of business are as wild as the magic itself.

The one major flaw in this otherwise charming book is that it was simply too long, and after a time the characters and the plot started to grate on me, especially Miss Quint and the sideplot (but then actually the main plot?) of characters from books being wished into existence and the wreaking havoc in the real world. That plot went on forever, and Miss Quint, who is an adult, refusing to come clean and telling lie after lie to cover up her tracks got more and more annoying. There was also some pretty inconceivable events that happened and altogether I thought that plotline really dampened my enjoyment of the book.

I did like Susan’s plotline, though, and that was tied up with the annoying plotline, so I suppose it wasn’t all bad. I just wish the book had maybe been about fifty pages shorter, and hadn’t had that wild burglary angle complete with kidnapping and car chase because that’s when things really started getting unbelievable.

Basically, I really liked the first half of Magical Mischief, but the second half was a bit of a chore to read, so I finished the book with more of a negative feeling than a positive.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic  


Survival in the Storm by Katelan Janke

Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, by Katelan Janke, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I was going to start out this review completely differently, but then I flipped to the back of the book to find the author’s name and found something out completely stunning: Katelan Janke was in some sort of Dear America writing contest and won, so she got to turn her contest submission into a manuscript.

She was fifteen years old.

Like S. E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, Janke is proof that you can actually have novel-worthy writing at a young age. I did notice throughout the book that everything felt a bit too stale and that the writing didn’t seem as good as some of the other DA books. Well, now I know why, and I can’t really hold it against Janke.

Janke does an admirable job of showing both the Dust Bowl and the situation for the migrant workers in California, who were treated terribly and were all called “Okies” despite only some of them being from Oklahoma. She doesn’t do as good of a job explaining the reasons for the Dust Bowl, with only some vague references to plowing and farming, though it was described more in-depth in the Historical Notes in the back.

There is a little too much show and not enough tell, and everything is just a little too pat and ends a little too nicely, and overall there’s some really boring parts, but towards the end of the novel the book gets more interesting. Props to Janke—she’s the most inexperienced DA writer, and I thought this book was better than some of the other DA books written by more experienced writers. Once a lot of the rough patches are over, and you get more used to the style of writing, Survival in the Storm was far from the worst DA book I’ve read.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Death

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, was published in 2010 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5        

One Crazy Summer is an interesting novel. It’s set in Oakland in 1968 and the Black Panthers play a central role as Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern go to one of their summer camps and experience a completely different life than what they’re used to. I liked that there was a bit of a role-reversal in that it is their mother they are visiting. Usually in books where children visit an estranged parent, the parent is the father. It was interesting to have it be the mother this time, though I suppose Williams-Garcia did that not for the role-reversal, but for some sort of statement about women, strength, and independence.

I enjoyed the voices of the characters, especially Delphine, and all of the sisters’ interactions were very well done. I liked that Williams-Garcia sort of showed both sides of the Black Panthers and multiple views of their actions—she didn’t glorify them, but strove to portray them as realistically as possible for a children’s book. It was still a bit weird for me because I’ve really only heard negative things about the violence they caused, but this book did teach me about their summer camps and all the ways they helped to improve the lives of the children in the neighborhoods.

The part that was the hardest to swallow wasn’t any of the Black Panther stuff; it was the actions of Cecile, the mother. Early on, Delphine remembers something that Big Ma told her, which is that Cecile left because she wanted to name Fern something else (“Afua,” we learn later) and wasn’t allowed—or something. Cecile kind of confirms this by refusing to call Fern “Fern” and instead calling her “Little Girl” (and later, by accident, Afua). She then tells Delphine that “she’d have to be grown before [Cecile] could explain why she left [because of a name].” Okay, but…did she leave because of the name or not? Was Garcia-Williams trying to imply there was more to the story, or was this supposed to be some sort of statement about Cecile?

Anyway, while I liked the voice and the characters, and I learned a bit about the setting, overall the entire novel just felt like I was missing something–which I probably was, to be honest. I simply felt as if I didn’t “get it,” like I was supposed to feel like Cecile was this amazing person when all I could think was that she seemed a bit self-centered (at first—she gets a little better, but I still don’t understand why you would leave your family because of a name). I might read at least the sequel to this book to see if we learn more about Cecile, since I did really like the characters. It was just some of the circumstances I couldn’t relate to, I suppose.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, was published in 2017 by Dial. It is the sequel to The War That Saved My Life.

Rating: 3/5        

I didn’t get quite as swept up in The War I Finally Won as I did in The War That Saved My Life. While this book continues the healing process that Ada started in the latter book, I simply didn’t find it as immediately gripping. Bradley leaves nothing to subtlety and every emotional hurdle that Ada overcomes is plainly spoken so that the reader understands exactly what has happened. This isn’t a bad thing for a children’s book, I guess, but it leaves a lot to be desired for any older reader.

I suppose that’s my biggest complaint about this book: there’s far too much tell and not enough show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an interesting book, and Ada’s slowly defrosting heart and widening understanding of relationships, love, and family is heartwarming (no pun intended). Yet the delivery is too pat for me to be enthralled with the process.

However, if you left The War That Saved My Life wanting more Lady Thornton, Margaret, Jonathan, and, of course, Ada, Jamie, and Susan, then this book does do a whole lot in furthering each character’s relationship with each other. There’s dual mother-daughter relationships, with Lady Thornton and Margaret, and Susan and Ada, and then there’s Ada dealing with Lady Thornton in her life, who is an authority but not her mother. There’s the inclusion of a German girl, Ruth, who brings a whole new dynamic to the family dynamic. Of course, the book mostly focuses on Ada and Susan, but Ada learns a whole lot about relationships and getting along with other people, as well as the many facets of love.

The War I Finally Won is a good sequel to The War That Saved My Life, with lots of discussion about love, mothers, enemies, and courage. I had problems with the delivery of the ideas and the overall lack of showing what’s happening rather than merely telling, but overall the book showed lots of promise and had strong, relevant themes.  

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here:

Christmas After All by Kathryn Lasky

Christmas After All: The Diary of Minnie Swift, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5        

Christmas After All would have been rated a 4 if it hadn’t been for the extremely cheesy ending. As a specifically Christmas-themed Dear America, I suppose I should have expected that Lasky would have gone for the same sort of theme as a Hallmark Christmas movie, but the inclusion of all that “Oh, it is a Christmas after all!” at the very end ruined the whole book for me a little.

It’s a shame because this DA book has one of the strongest voices. It reads far more like an actual girl writing in a diary than someone who is simply narrating a sequence of events, as has been the case for past novels. Perhaps the shorter period of time (most DA books take place over months—this one took place over days) and a more general historical event helped focus the whole novel on the character voice, as this was one of the most realistic I’ve read. I was actually quite shocked that Minnie came from Lasky, who I’ve criticized before for her writing in Guardians of Ga’Hoole. This writing was so unlike the Lasky that I’ve read; it was a very pleasant surprise.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book until the very end. As I said, the voice is fantastic, and though Lasky doesn’t really communicate all that much about the Great Depression, it’s at least clear that it was a bad time for lots of people (which is really understating it, but that’s the general feeling in the book). And, thinking about it, that’s exactly how a child might think of it at the time, so perhaps it was the perfect way to discuss it! Everything, after all, is filtered through Minnie’s eyes, so we are seeing her impressions and descriptions, which may not mean they are strictly historical ones.

Christmas After All is a perfectly themed Dear America book, with a memorable voice and good historical detail interwoven. The Christmas theme does come across way too strongly at the end, which ruined the book for me a little, as I prefer strong finishes and this finish felt trite and cliché. I’m also really disappointed in the epilogue and historical notes because I’m a nerd and I care about those things. It’s one of the more unique DA books, though, so it’s a stand-out regardless.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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