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

Across the Rolling River by Celia Wilkins

Across the Rolling River, by Celia Wilkins, was published in 2001 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to On Top of Concord Hill.

Rating: 3/5

Perhaps it’s because I read them too far apart, or the author tried very hard to make a smooth transition, but I couldn’t really tell that a different author had written Across the Rolling River. There were a few things that felt slightly off, but not enough for me to really be jarred by the change in style.

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2KAIv8d

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, by Kate Douglas Wiggin, was first published in 1903.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/32VTwaX

1962 Newbery Medal: The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare, was published in 1961 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

On Top of Concord Hill by Maria D. Wilkes

On Top of Concord Hill, by Maria D. Wilkes, was published in 2000 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little Clearing in the Woods.

Rating: 3/5

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 good way!).

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2XNxIQ0

1973 Newbery Medal: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George, was published in 1972 by Harper Collins.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

Little Clearing in the Woods by Maria D. Wilkes

Little Clearing in the Woods, by Maria D. Wilkes, was published in 1998 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to Little Town at the Crossroads.

Rating: 3/5

Little 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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2XCa2ZV

The Soul of An American President by Alan Sears, Craig Osten, and Ryan Cole

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.  

My rating: 3/5

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).

Warnings: None.

Genre: Biography

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

1966 Newbery Medal: I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño, was published in 1965 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Ls0mPu