Little House by Boston Bay, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 1999 by HarperTrophy.
Having finished the Martha Years, I’m moving right along to the Charlotte Years—Martha’s daughter, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s grandmother. The same author wrote both sets of books, which is a good thing—Martha remains familiar, and the details of her life in Scotland remain accurate. Not that many details are given—Wiley saves that for another book.
As a kind of hopeless romantic at heart, for most of the book I reflected on Martha and Lewis. If I remember correctly, Martha marries Lewis, a blacksmith, someone of a much lower station than her, and as a result her family disowns her (however, there is some research that indicates that “Martha Morse” was never Scottish at all, and that her husband’s name was really Joseph). It’s kind of interesting to read this book with that perspective and reflect on all the sacrifices that were made, but also see how much Martha and Lewis love each other.
The book is fairly similar to the Martha Years books—as it would be, with the same author—although obviously without the Scottish background. Instead, we have the War of 1812, and the political tension of the day woven into the background. It’s maybe not as immediately gripping as were the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, but Little House by Boston Bay is still part of a series that were dearly loved by me as a child—I know the scenes like old friends, and I vividly remember the too-spicy pounded cheese chapter and the Saturday family. Perhaps the Charlotte Years aren’t too exciting, but reading this book has been a great nostalgia trip for me.
Down the Rabbit Hole is the first of the revamped Dear America books I’ve read. Scholastic prettied up the covers, added the author’s name to the front, and placed a summary, rather than an excerpt, on the back of the book. I think the official reasoning behind it was that it made the books appear more like fiction (the old Dear America books did not have the author’s name at the front, and the copyright page was in the back of the book), but the complaints of “How are we supposed to know it’s fiction?” towards the old Dear America books always seemed thin to me. It’s in the fiction section, people—it’s fiction!
Anyway, my first experience with the revamped books wasn’t that bad. To be honest, I would have rated this book higher if it hadn’t been for the ending. The ending seriously annoyed me. I also didn’t like the titles of the sections, as it really disrupted the diary feel of it. And though I found the constant going back-and-forth in time annoying at first, I soon got used to it.
I would probably rank this book in the middle of my imaginary Dear America rankings. It seems more useful and historically integrated than A Light in the Storm, but it’s not as compelling as I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly. Bartoletti talks about labor unions, Down’s syndrome, and the Chicago fire well enough, but a lot of her plot hinges on convenience. Cager arriving at the Pritchard’s house was when everything turned awry for me. There was too much convenience, too many things being revealed, and several out of character moments. The ending was a letdown.
I don’t really understand the reason for the revamped Dear America books, but at least Down the Rabbit Hole promises somewhat good additions. Everything in the book was strong until the ending. I don’t know if I like the stylistic choice, but I’m glad to see that the change didn’t lead to a significant drop in quality.
I adored The Hollow Kingdom, so finding out there were two more books after it made me really happy. Close Kin is about Emily, the sister of Kate (the protoganist in The Hollow Kingdom), but it’s also about Seylin and his quest to find the elves, and the elves themselves, particularly the two female elves.
I didn’t enjoy Close Kin as much as I enjoyed the first book—there’s just a few too many places where the pace drags, and the elf history is convoluted and hard to understand. And the last third of the book is almost a rehash of The Hollow Kingdom, except a little harder to take and with a greater emphasis on children. I know that many people might not like that Dunkle emphasizes children so much, but it makes sense in the world she has built. If Marak seems a bit heartless, well, his role as King is to help protect the life of his people, and having children is one of those things. So that part I didn’t mind—plus I thought the parts with Sable overcoming her fear were good, too.
Speaking of Marak, the dry humor and wit he exudes with every line is fabulous. I literally laughed out loud, or giggled, during the last third of the book, solely due to his lines. That doesn’t happen with me a lot. Basically, all the parts in the goblin kingdom I liked—it’s when the book moves away from that where it fell apart a little bit. There are simply too many characters, and the point of view switch from Emily, to Seylin, to Sable is just one too many switches, especially since by the end of the book it’s not really about Emily anymore, or Seylin, but Sable. I liked Sable’s parts, but it made for a clumsy, confusing story.
The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars, was published in 1970 by Puffin.
The Summer of the Swans is a novel on the shorter side, with a simplistic, yet important, message. The events of the book take place over two days and starts off with Sara expressing how discontent she is with everything in her life. We get a glimpse into what her life is like with her older sister, her aunt, and her little brother with an unspecified disability. As one might expect, by the end of the book, Sara has come to appreciate what she has and has learned to not always express her dissatisfaction and to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.
As with other shorter Newbery Medals like The Whipping Boy or The Matchlock Gun, I find it quite hard to comment much on The Summer of the Swans. I read it all in one bus ride on my way to student retreat, and spent some of the time both during and after reading it conversing with my students (mostly about my pace of reading), so this is not a book that I had the luxury of reading without distractions.
The message is standard and simple, but still important today. It’s interesting how effective the “I took everything for granted, but then I realized what I really had when it was almost too late” plot can be. Byars deals with Charlie’s mental disability very well, though handwaves the specifics (it seems a little like autism to me, but Byars clearly says that Charlie became this way after an illness). By giving some scenes from Charlie’s perspective, the reader is able to understand a little bit more of Charlie—and to see “the other side” that Sara cannot yet see.
I’d be interested to see what someone who has experience with special needs kids would say about this book. I thought the message was important, though the story itself was basic. It’s not a particularly memorable Newbery, and it’s nowhere close to my favorite, but I do think The Summer of the Swans was ahead of its time, in a way, in portraying something that back then was probably much more closeted and taboo of a subject.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Charlie is called “retarded” a couple of times.
I first caught sight of Ink and Bone in the hands of a ten-year-old girl. I remember being attracted by the cover, with the title and “The Great Library” written on it. I thought, “Oh, cute. A middle grade book about a library. I may have to pick that up.”
Oh, boy, was I in for a surprise. This book is definitely not middle-grade—and thus probably far too mature for the ten-year-old girl who I saw reading it—and much more intense and serious than I was expecting. The concept is fascinating—a world where books and knowledge are tightly controlled, where people can access the book, but only through the use of the Library’s technology. They’re not allowed to touch or own real books. To be honest, I’m not sure if Caine was trying to create some sort of analogy with e-books or not, but there’s definitely a lot of attention placed on the value of owning and holding and reading bound books. The main message, though, is definitely about imbalance of power and the abuse of those who hold all the knowledge and who control the access of that knowledge.
I also found the conversation between Jess and someone else about taking down monuments of the past particularly interesting. Jess says something about how he doesn’t like the idea about people remaking the world in an image that they like, rather than an image that reflects truth and history, and that certainly resonated with me.
Interesting concept aside, I found the writing a little too lackluster and mechanical for my tastes. And the plot itself is a bit of a let-down—it takes too long for things to get moving, then once they do, the plot stalls and slows down, then finally gets to where it wants to go three hundred pages later. I will say that the characterization is great, with each character really standing out (at least the six that Caine wants to focus on), but Jess fades a bit in comparison. He’s not a particularly memorable protagonist.
Once I got past my initial surprise, Ink and Bone was quite enjoyable, though I felt there were some problems with pacing, writing, and unfortunately the main character. It’s an interesting take on censorship, the control of knowledge, and where its true value lies.
We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart, was published in 2013 by Delacorte.
We Were Liars is a suspense/mystery novel. Cadence Sinclair Eastman has forgotten the majority of her fifteenth summer at her family’s private island and the story is about her struggle to put together the pieces of what happened that caused her amnesia.
Though it’s a suspense novel, it really doesn’t read like one. It’s mostly about teenage life, or what Lockhart assumes is teenage life. There’s familial drama, the close-knit adventures of cousins and friends, the confusion as Cadence struggles to remember and people around her refuse to answer her questions, and some odd fairy tale stories scattered throughout. Odd because they seem out of place, though clearly Lockhart believed they were necessary—I just didn’t get it.
Despite the fact that it doesn’t much read like a suspense novel, the ending is quite shocking. I went into it thinking I knew what was happening, then had to change my mind, then got hit with the plot twist at the end. I literally spoke to the book, that’s how shocked I was. Suddenly I wanted to reread the book, or go back quickly at least, to look and see all the clues and foreshadowing. That’s a good ending of a book, if it makes you want to reread it immediately.
We Were Liars wasn’t the edge-of-my-seat, gripping suspense novel I was hoping, but it still pleasantly surprised me, delivering a seemingly innocent plot with a shocking undercurrent. I thought the fairy stories were weird, and the writing was a little too scattered for me to really like, but overall, I liked my first foray into E. Lockhart’s works.
Though Patina is the sequel to Ghost, it’s not really necessary to have read Ghost first, though it does give you added insight to some of the characters. I like the whole idea Reynolds is going for: a book centered on each of the four central characters. If the pattern holds, each one will take place after the one before it. Patina starts where Ghost left off, finishing the race that Reynolds ended Ghost with.
Reynolds ends this book with another race, and yet again ends the book before we see the results. I like it as much as I liked it in Ghost, which is to say, not at all, and I hope it’s not a sign of a pattern.
Anyway, I don’t think I liked Patina as much as I liked Ghost—Ghost tugged at the heartstrings a little bit more, though I liked the sibling relationship in this book and the conversations about Patina’s white aunt. And I liked that Reynolds didn’t go for the standard bully story in school, but simply had complex characters with different motivations, with Patina trying to understand their actions. But Ghost really pulled at me, whereas Patina was good, but not as immediately connecting as I found Ghost.
I do, however, still really like this series and am eager to read the next two books about Sunny and Lu. I’ve seen enough of their characters in these two books that I want to know more about their lives—which, I guess, is part of what Reynolds is trying to do. And I love the uniqueness of each character, and how their lives are so different in so many ways, and yet they can come together with the common interesting of running. Unity in diversity is a great message to deliver.
The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Kristiana Gregory’s Dear America books are some of the best in the series. Seeds of Hope and Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairieare among my favorites. Gregory seems to understand a balance of slice-of-life and history is needed in order to make these books shine.
That being said, The Great Railroad Race is a bit of a downer. While an important period of time, there just aren’t enough things that happen. It’s certainly very informative, but it’s lacking a little sparkle, in my opinion. There’s too much of Libby blushing about Pete and not enough about the politics and culture of the time. Gregory does include some things about the conflict with the Indians, as well as mentioning the Chinese that worked for Central Pacific, and there’s a great deal of information about what it was like near the railroad. But it’s too much in the background, I guess—it reads too much like information and there’s not enough immersion.
I did like Libby, though, with her matter-of-fact comments. Gregory did a good job of inserting the sort of opinions a girl would put in her diary, such as her thoughts on the President, the Indians, and the culture of the time. I’ve complained before about the protagonist simply being a vehicle for historical information, or for not being present enough in her own story, but there’s none of that here.
The Great Railroad Race definitely isn’t the worst of Dear America, but it’s not really near the best. It’s a good, average book in the series. The historical information is interesting, but not as immersive as others. Libby is a great protagonist, although she spends a little too much time talking about her feelings for Pete. It’s not my favorite of Gregory’s books.
Beyond the Heather Hills is the last Martha book, though I don’t believe it was intended to be. From what Wiley has said about her ideas for future books, I could see seeds of them being sown here, especially in the relationship between Martha and Lewis Tucker, and in Martha’s desire to see more beyond her home—yet also her fierce longing for the familiar.
This book deals with a topic not yet addressed in the Martha books, which is death. Martha is confronted with death, with leaving home, with change. Fear is a prominent theme in this book: fear of the unknown, fear of leaving the ones you love. Yet the end brings the promise of joy in new life, too. It’s a very familiar bookend, death and life, but it’s one that’s always needed.
Beyond the Heather Hills isn’t as fun as some of the previous Martha books. Martha spends too much time being homesick for that. But it is a very poignant one. It’s a shame that these books weren’t more popular, as they really are quite good children’s books, but they do lack a little something. As fiery as Martha is, the books are a little too plain.
I’ve enjoyed rereading these books, though they don’t hold a candle in my mind against the original Wilder books. Wiley did a good job with conveying Scottish tradition and culture and with making Martha a good protagonist who learns a lot but still manages to have fun along the way. They’re not my favorite of the “prequel series to Little House books,” but they hold a special place in my heart because of their presence in my childhood bookshelf.
Stalking Jack the Ripper, by Kerri Maniscalco, was published in 2016 by Jimmy Patterson Books.
At first I wasn’t sure if I would like Stalking Jack the Ripper as the protagonist seemed to be of the rebellious female trope that I don’t really like. However, while that certainly was the case, I actually liked Audrey Rose up to a certain extent. While she did have that annoying “I can do whatever I want” attitude, I liked the fact that she still appreciated good clothing and that she also displayed many feminine characteristics despite her progressiveness.
I also found that the romance, while typical, even cliché, was quite sweet and I liked the chemistry between Audrey Rose and Thomas. I thought Thomas was too Sherlock Holmesian in his deduction skills, but I liked the contrast between Thomas’s deduction and Audrey Rose’s induction—or, basically, reason versus feeling.
The mystery portion was good, though I found that actually “solving” the Jack the Ripper mystery made the novel almost too fictional, if I’m making any sense. It’s hard for a novel to successfully pull off an unsolved mystery and maintain an aura of realism—it screams, more than other fiction books, “the author is completely making this up.” Maybe I take my fiction too seriously, though! I do give credit to Maniscalco for coming up with the mystery and the solution, of course. It just seemed strange to me to read.
The only major criticism I have for the mystery as a whole is that there’s a part near the beginning where Audrey Rose and Thomas are investigating one of the victims and there’s a dramatic scene where tantalizing snippets of dialogue are thrown out to heighten the mystery. Except that the scene was completely worthless, since nothing about it is ever explained. It’s literally a red herring meant to increase the suspense, and it annoyed me that we never got solid answers about it.
Oh, and Audrey Rose’s determination at the end of the novel made it incredibly obvious who the killer was, since it was a moment of “that character is way too fixated on this particular thing; therefore, it must not be true.”
Stalking Jack the Ripper was surprisingly enjoyable for starring a protagonist type that I usually hate. I think I will keep an eye on Maniscalco and see what she cooks up next.