Out of the Embers by Amanda Cabot

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Out of the Embers, by Amanda Cabot, from Revell. All opinions are my own.

My rating: 3/5

Out of the Embers tells the story of Evelyn Radcliffe, who, after the orphanage she worked in burned down, flees to Mesquite Springs with a young orphan girl she has befriended. There, she is inspired to start a restaurant where she runs into a number of the local community, including the rancher Wyatt Clark. As expected, the story is a romance, but there’s also a surprising amount of suspense and mystery as Evelyn seeks to escape from the mysterious person who murdered her parents and who burned down the orphanage.

My favorite parts of the book were the ones dedicated to unraveling the mystery behind the Watcher (what Evelyn dubbed the person she felt was watching her throughout her life after her parents were killed), Evelyn’s parents’ deaths, and the orphanage fire. Cabot integrates scarce viewpoints and tantalizing suggestions into the main story—just enough to keep readers curious and the novel suspenseful, but not enough to deflate the tension and make everything obvious. And the end result is pretty interesting and wraps up all three storylines nicely.

The parts of the book that I didn’t enjoy as much unfortunately were what most of the rest was dedicated to. I wasn’t fond of the love square present in the novel, and I’m not fond of “every man falls in love with the new girl” tropes at all, so having both of those present here was a little annoying. In addition, a lot of the dialogue between Wyatt and Evelyn was pretty cheesy and sappy, at least when they’re talking about their feelings. It just didn’t feel natural to me at all; it didn’t feel like anything someone would actually say to someone else.

I also was a little disgruntled that after this huge, tense buildup with Sam, Cabot basically deflated it all with one stroke, making it anticlimactic and a bit cheap. I suppose how she resolved it shows a measure of nuance, but I think the execution could have been a bit less jarring.

Out of the Embers breaks no molds and shatters no expectations for me. If you like the multitude of other Christian historical fiction novels out there, then you’ll like this. There’s decent suspense and mystery in it, though I found the romance clichéd and cheesy. The other plot besides the romance, however, elevated the book in my estimation of it. I deem it better than average, but not fantastic.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, was published in 1964 by Delacorte.

Rating: 3/5

Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books as a child. I’m not really sure why; I just remember reading it over (and over) again. It’s interesting for me now to think about how many times I read favorite books over and over again when I was young. I don’t really consider myself a “rereader” as such, though I do have a few favorites that I love to return to. Anyway, for whatever reason, I read it quite frequently as a child.

Reading it now, I can see just how strange of a book Harriet the Spy is. It starts with Harriet and her friend Scout randomly going with her nurse Ole Golly to her mother’s house, who is described in unflattering terms as fat and dumb, and then continues with Harriet’s mean-spirited notes about friends and strangers. Harriet sneaks into people’s houses and peers through windows, all for the pleasure of spying. The entire book has a sort of jaunty, cavalier attitude throughout the entire thing that makes it incredibly difficult to transfer across times and cultures. Fitzhugh seems to be playing around quite a bit with perception and attitude and truth, perhaps even attempting to be satirical throughout, but Harriet’s fake apologies towards the end make a cohesive theme difficult to pull from the book. As a child, it didn’t occur to me that Harriet was really mean, or that her apology wasn’t sincere, so at least in that circumstance I don’t think the book is necessarily giving a bad message, but I think Fitzhugh is doing something more complex than her audience would ever be able to grasp.

That being said, I do appreciate Fitzhugh’s unapologetic, solid approach to showing what parents might do for a child who is having problems with change. I rarely read a children’s book with counseling in it, so to have that in this book was actually pretty bold and refreshing, I thought.

Harriet the Spy is a strange book, and one I think kids today might struggle to connect with due to its complex layers, aged language, and the really weird way the book starts. I don’t know if I enjoyed reading it again, but I certainly found it interesting.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Harriet is bluntly honest, which is to say she’s mean; lots of “finks” thrown around; tons of off-hand references to alcoholism, absent parents, and other things that may go over a child’s head due to the 60s slang

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

Elizabeth I by Kathryn Lasky

Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

Dear America spawned multiple spin-offs, but probably the most interesting ones are the Royal Diaries, which chronicles the lives of young future queens around the world. I won’t be doing these in chronological order, as I did with Dear America, or by any other ridiculous measure of reading (like by region or country or whatever), but simply in the order that’s listed on the Wikipedia page (and only the ones my library has).

The immediate thing I noticed while reading Elizabeth I is how much longer it was than a standard Dear America novel, as well as how much more time it covered (1544-1547). Lasky tried her best to make Elizabeth seem as much as a normal girl as possible, though in the interest of the series she had to work in all the political intrigue and medieval information that corresponded with the time period. That means, unfortunately, casting a rather poor light on Princess Mary (“Bloody Mary”) who is only ever depicted as vindictive and deceitful (done so that children can realize that she wasn’t a very great queen later on, I realize, but a bit heavy-handed for me, though admittedly I know almost nothing of that time period nor anything about Mary beyond details about her reign that are still taught). It also means having Elizabeth proclaim almost from the beginning of the novel that she would never marry.

I do like how Lasky wove in all the information of Henry VIII and his wives. She played around a little with how Elizabeth must have felt to have a father who killed her mother, and who then married twice afterwards. Lasky is, perhaps, too nice to Henry VIII, but it makes sense in the light of a child’s view of her father.

I think the Royal Diaries is a concept is much more interesting than the standard Dear America novels, and I love political intrigue, so I’m looking forward to seeing where things go. I also know that RD covers a much broader range of cultures and time periods, as they are not limited to simply America, so it will be interesting to see how that is handled.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck by Emily Fairlie

The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck, by Emily Fairlie, was published in 2012 by Katherine Tegen.

Rating: 3/5

The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck is one of those obscure, random books you pick off the shelf at the library because it sounds kind of interesting, while inwardly you prepare yourself for it to be really cheesy, but then you’re kind of pleasantly surprised by the end.

The book is about two students of Tuckernuck, a school with an interesting background and a looming shut-down date, who start looking for the treasure that the founder of the school hid eighty years ago. Laurie and Bud aren’t really friends when they team up, but, of course, along the way they learn a thing or two about friendship, as well as school spirit and loyalty.

It’s a fast read, and the treasure hunt is fairly interesting. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the inclusion of memos and post-it notes from various side characters that make things more interesting and fun. It also helps these side characters to stand out more and make the reader actually interested in them. The illustrations were another plus, adding good visual charm.

The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck is a pretty straightforward treasure hunt book, but it was surprisingly more interesting and less cheesy than I thought it would be. The treasure hunt was pretty intricate, the lessons the characters learned were woven into the story well, and there was a great deal of charm throughout with some good writing decisions and format. Overall, it was much more enjoyable than I originally thought it would be!

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Ellen Emerson White

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, by Ellen Emerson White, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? is the last Dear America book chronologically. It’s a shame the series stopped with the Vietnam War, since I’m sure there’s lots of other interesting events in the 70s-early 2000s that the series could have covered, but I suppose there was never really an opportunity.

Molly is perhaps one of the most opinionated and feisty protagonists, but it fits with the era. White manages to throw in at least some nuance to the Vietnam controversy, though I wish more mention had been made of the thousands of refugees the war created, and Molly communicates her confusion and uncertainty quite well, with being caught between pride that her brother is fighting for his country and her unease with America fighting the war. White also covers a lot of other issues, such as the many assassinations that took place during that time period, riots, second-wave feminism, and even baseball. It’s a nice cursory glimpse at the Vietnam period, though it’s much more concerned with the American view of the war during a small window of time as opposed to a broader overview of the entire war. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it prevented the book from getting too drawn out and sluggish.

My foray into the Dear America books has been interesting and very nostalgic. I won’t do a favorites or ranking for this series, but I must say, I wasn’t expecting so many of the books to be so boring and mediocre. I only had a few stand-out favorites, and a few hanging on merely for nostalgia’s sake. Now that this is done, I have to give myself another crazy reading goal! Such as…all of the Royal Diaries?

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren, was published in 1950 by Viking.

Rating: 3/5

Ah, Pippi Longstocking. Another of my childhood books that I read over and over to the point of memorizing. These books sat next to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy family books. Even now, years since I’ve picked up the book, I still remember reading it, and all the inflections I put in all the character’s voices.

Pippi Longstocking was first published in Sweden, which explains why at one point Lindgren (or the translator?) describes someone speaking in Swedish as well as all the names and sometimes odd references. It’s the story of an incorrigible nine-year-old who lives by herself (with a monkey and a horse), but who is perfectly capable of taking care of herself due to her immense wealth and strength. With a pirating background and loads of practicality and literalness, Pippi makes a scene wherever she goes—and still somehow manages to avoid major adult interference.

Lindgren writes Pippi in such a way that children will be sure to love the books, though adult readers might find her a bit wearing. She’s so…present in every scene, and all the characters fade into the background, even her friends Tommy and Annika. Though Lindgren makes it so that Pippi comes out on top nearly every time, there are at least some hints where you can see Pippi’s lack of education and discipline showing through in a more negative light, such as when she disrupts a tea party with her terrible manners and constant interruptions to tell stories about her or her family’s life (which she admits she makes up). She’s cheeky and incorrigible and exactly the sort of messy children’s protagonist that children love (I did). As an adult, though, I found her a bit taxing and annoying.

Pippi Longstocking is a book that didn’t hold its charm for me as an adult, but I still had an enjoyable nostalgic read of it and I’m looking forward to seeing if the book where Pippi, Tommy, and Annika go to an island where her father has been crowned king of cannibals is as cringe-worthy as I think it will be.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy (?)

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Spin the Dawn, by Elizabeth Lim, was published in 2019 by Random House.

Rating: 3/5

Spin the Dawn is one of those books where everyone screams about it based solely on the cover and the summary. It was all over Goodreads as well as some other websites I frequent that talk about books before it was even published. It seemed interesting to me, which is why I got it, though I shudder at any “girl disguises herself as boy” plot. I was also hoping for something more fairy-tale-like, which tends to be more palatable to me.

And, all right, the highest praise I can give it is that it was actually pretty good (and knowing my track record with YA, that’s high praise from me!). It didn’t make me want to tear my hair out or anything. Honestly, I thought the plot was handled nicely, even the girl-disguised-as-boy part, Maia was fairly interesting, and the romance was cute. Lim also manages to make a “girl saves boy” plot work, too, without ridiculous hoop-jumping and other eye-rolling plot conveniences.

I mean, there were places where I really wasn’t a fan. The first part of the sewing contest thing was a bit rocky because I thought Maia was too eager to use the scissors for being such a supposedly good tailor, and I thought Lim tried just a little too hard to give her flaws during that part. But the rest of the novel flowed much more nicely and in the end I actually believed Maia when she kept describing how she had changed because it was clearly developed. Also, the romance was cute, but wildly predictable and almost saccharinely sweet in places. Though I liked the successful and believable “girl saves boy,” that entire aspect was too predictable (though not, I suppose, the part at the end with the curse).

Spin the Dawn is probably one of the less irritating YA fantasy novels I’ve read recently. I did have some issues with it, but overall it was enjoyable and I liked the majority of it.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: The romance is between an eighteen (seventeen? I don’t remember)-year-old girl and a hundreds-of-years-old enchanter. There’s also lots of kissing and sleeping together, though the kissing is described much more. 

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

The Fences Between Us by Kirby Larson

The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis,by Kirby Larson, was published in 2010 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5

I think I’ve actually read The Fences Between Us before, though I barely remember it. I knew going in that it was about Pearl Harbor/Japanese internment, and I was curious, after reading a few books about that subject last year, how Larson’s account would hold up to those.

I really enjoyed the perspective given of a pastor’s kid whose father’s decisions profoundly affect her life. The characters in the book are based off of real people, so while Piper is completely fictional, her father was inspired by Pastor Emery Andrews, who moved to a Japanese detention camp to follow his congregation. A lot of books I’ve read that have Christian characters make them very flat, even stereotypical, so this book was a nice breath of fresh air. One thing I can’t fault the Dear America books on is their portrayal of religion; it’s always been interwoven (with some emphasizing more than others), not ignored as with other books.

I think Larson handled the topic very well, though I think the book itself goes on for far too long. To her credit, Larson includes everything from Pearl Harbor to the tension between Japanese Americans and their neighbors to Executive Order 9066 to the actual move Piper and her father make, all of which is important and necessary…but that’s a whole lot to cram into a book, not to mention all the extra things she includes, like Piper’s first boyfriend and her activities at school. The book, therefore, is hefty and starts to really show its length towards the middle/end.

The Fences Between Us is good, and definitely one of the better revamped Dear America books. However, it’s so long that it starts to drag and I started losing interest when things continued at a slow pace.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, was published in 2003 by Harcourt.

Rating: 3/5

I went into A Northern Light thinking I had never read it before, but I realized about halfway through that I had read it, but remembered almost nothing about it except for one particular scene. So, this was like reading the book for the first time.

I can see why it won so many accolades when it was published—girl power, ra ra, and things like that. It’s the story of (fictional) Mattie Gokey, who finds herself in the possession of the letters of (the real) Grace Brown, whose murder in 1906 by her boyfriend was fairly well publicized and inspired a novel called An American Tragedy. The letters are only a framework, though—the real story is about Mattie and her quest to go to New York for college, a path that’s littered with obstacles like family obligation, money, and the handsome boy next door.

Donnelly paints a fairly terrible situation for young women in 1906—powerless to do much and doomed to be housewives, preyed upon by men and ridiculed by society. Shocking pictures are painted by what happens with the female characters, such as Miss Baxter, whose abusive husband threatens to send her to a sanitarium if she keeps publishing poetry, and Emily Hubbard, who is the secret town prostitute (or something—it’s not particularly clear). Then, of course, we have Mattie, who struggles to balance her own family responsibilities with her desire to be a writer, and her own emotions of love/longing/loneliness.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, if only because I thought Donnelly was a little too heavy-handed, and I also thought much more could have been resolved between Mattie and her family. As it stands, Mattie’s leaving at the end, while clearly important, is marred by the sense that she’s abandoned her family. I get that the stronger takeaway is her decision to leave Royal because 1) she didn’t truly love him, she just loved the feelings/attention, and 2.) she was abandoning her desire to be with someone who was using her to fulfill his own desires, but I can’t help feeling a bit cheated that there wasn’t a stronger resolution with her family.

Anyway, if you like feminist novels, especially historical ones, then you’ll probably really enjoy A Northern Light. It highlights all the problems for women in the early twentieth century, even if it’s a bit heavy-handed by the time the end of the novel draws near. I found it interesting, but not intriguing; good, but not great. It held my attention, but not to the point where I didn’t want to put it down.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Sexual implications/innuendo/suggestions, swearing

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

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