Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2018 by Delacorte

Rating: 5/5

Brandon Sanderson is always so consistently good as a writer—his plots are intricate, his characters are fleshed out, the worldbuilding is superb, and there’s always a bit of humor thrown in to mellow things out. Skyward is no exception. I don’t normally like science fiction, but Sanderson makes it interesting—and understandable. One of his trademarks as an author is complicated, but understandable worldbuilding, and in Skyward everything from the caverns to the planet, but especially the fighter ships, is meticulously explained in a way that makes sense and that flows from the world naturally.

This book was very hard for me to put down, since Sanderson is so good at pacing and tension. While perhaps not as fun as Steelheart was, with all of its superpowers, Spensa and the other members of her flight crew made the book come alive and made me enjoy every minute of it. I also enjoyed the mysteries surrounding M-Bot, Spensa’s spoiler-y ability which I won’t really talk about, and Doomslug (who may not be mysterious, but certainly seems that way). And did I mention that I normally dislike science fiction to the point where it’s hard for me to enjoy any book of that genre, regardless of writer or quality? Yet Sanderson made it as interesting and exciting for me as any book of another genre because he’s so good.

All right, I might be biased (like with Diana Wynne Jones), but I did really love the book. I found a few things problematic towards the end, especially with the big reveal about Spensa and the Krell that I thought was perhaps delivered too fast (though there’s room in the sequels to explore all that, I suppose) or not explained enough, but Skyward was an excellent, fun adventure all the way through.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Z5oXAS

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn

Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2001 by Ace.

Rating: 5/5

Summers at Castle Auburn has been on my reading list for quite a while—since the first Sharon Shinn book I’ve read (The Safe-Keeper’s Secret), I think. The title, plus the rating on Goodreads, plus my love for 2000s fantasy, all contributed to my desire to read the book. It took me a while to actually get it, though.

But, boy, did it not disappoint.

Now, I’ve read other books that are more immediately gripping—The King of Attolia, for one—and it’s not the type of book that I feel I could read over and over again. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoyed Juliet Marillier and Kate Constable—and Shinn’s other works. It’s slow, and meandering, but there’s so much to think about and to see develop.

The book is pretty slow up until about the middle, but once you get to the middle, you see why the first part was important. There’s a bit of odd stuff scattered around, but it all contributes to the world and to the characters. The most prominent is the aliora, which seem like a pretty useless addition—take them out of the story and everything stays the same—but they do contribute to the world in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be as effective if they had been left out.

There’s a lot of court intrigue, which I loved, but the best part is that its intrigue interpreted through the eyes of someone who isn’t really involved in all the intrigue. So we see parts of it, and only get hints at the rest. The best part of this intrigue is, of course, the slow reveal of the character Bryan’s personality and tendencies, as he goes from flirtatious, energetic teenager to smiling monster. And, of course, my favorite part of the book was the ending, where intrigue collides with tension, and there are several big character moments for all of the main characters.

Shinn does make a small error towards the end—basically, Corie tells her sister something, and then later on wonders how her sister knows about that thing—but everything is so well paced and revealed that I could ignore it. And what I mostly cared about was the romance, which was maybe not as romantic as some people might like, but it was very well-developed, and I loved what it had to say about love and about how sometimes loving someone means doing something you normally wouldn’t do.

I’m not sure Summers at Castle Auburn will be on my “Could Read Again” list, but I thoroughly enjoyed almost every page of it—even the slow beginning. Shinn and 2000s fantasy prove their worth again!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Dark themes (murder is the most prominent, subtle hints at rape)

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Vp8qBy

1986 Newbery Medal: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan was published in 1985 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 5/5

I tend to have an issue with short Newbery Medal books. Perhaps it’s because they seem so much more aimed for children. Perhaps it’s because there’s no way to fit much plot or character development in something that short. Or maybe it’s because I’ve just had bad luck with my liking of short Newbery Medal books, like The Whipping Boy or The Matchlock Gun. Or it could be that short books mean short book reviews. Whatever it is, I’m not too much of a fan.

But I love Sarah, Plain and Tall.

It’s cute, it’s heartwarming, it’s feel-good and matter-of-fact and simplistic and beautiful. It’s a story of finding out where your home is, and whom it is with, and how to handle homesickness and missing things. It’s a story of two children who want to love and be loved, and how they get that in the person of Sarah, who is plain and tall and knows how to fix roofs and isn’t afraid of wearing overalls.

And yes, this is a short review, but it is a short book. And it’s delightful.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2SQeBO1

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly by Joyce Hansen

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, by Joyce Hansen, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

Rating: 5/5

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is a delightful story about Patsy, a freed slave who is struggling to find her identity and place in society. I knew very little about the beginning of the Reconstruction era that took place in the South after the Civil War, such as the government’s dealings with the freed slaves, so it was interesting to read this book to find out a little more.

Historical details aside, the heart of this book is Patsy’s story, as it should be. The best Dear America books are those that aren’t just there to give information about a particular time period, but actually tell a story through the diary entries. It seems pretty straightforward when I say it like that—why wouldn’t these books tell a story? But A Light in the Storm and a couple other Dear America books that I have read failed to move beyond the diary entries as a mouthpiece for the setting. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly makes Patsy, rather than the setting, the center.

I always have a soft place in my heart for protagonists who outwardly appear weak or are looked down upon, but have inner strength that shows itself in various ways (that almost never has to do with physical strength). Patsy, with her stutter and her seemingly “slow” mind, outwardly appears slow and weak, but inwardly she’s sharply intelligent—which shines when she’s doing what she loves. Patsy overcomes not only her stutter, but also her former status as a slave, and chooses for herself a name and a position the process of which is truly heartening to experience.

After so many disappointing Dear America books, I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly was a delight, with a character-driven plot, a delightful protagonist, and a timeless message. It sheds light on an era that I didn’t know much about, but still remembers that it should also be a story, not just a mouthpiece for history. This book will likely remain a stand-out for me among all of the Dear America books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

1977 Newbery Medal: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, was published in 1976 by Dial.

Why is the land so important to Cassie’s family? It takes the events of one turbulent year—the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she is black—to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family’s lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride, for no matter how others may degrade them, the Logans possess something no one can take away.

Rating: 5/5

I haven’t read this book in years, but I still vividly remember the last sentence. That tends to be a good omen in terms of how much I now like the books I had read as a child, but I was still a little hesitant going in. I didn’t remember all that much of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, beyond the last sentence, but I had a vague sense of “good” attached to it. My students read this book and I remember seeing it and saying, “Oh, that’s a great book!” without having any solid feeling to back it up.

Now, having read it, I can honestly say “Oh, that’s a great book!” when I see my sophomores with it because this is a great book.

It’s fantastic, actually…like To Kill a Mockingbird fantastic. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is sad, enraging, bittersweet, yet it possesses in its characters and in the land that they own an almost triumphant sense of undefeatedness. Taylor pulls absolutely no punches in her depictions of Southern life during segregation. In Cassie, Taylor has created a perfect vehicle for all readers to learn. Injustice and sorrow are center to this book, and are something that the book never resolves, only abates, as befitting the historical time period.

Roll of Thunder is one of the best vehicles for explaining segregation and the racism prevalent in the time before Civil Rights to children. To be honest, I found this book more shocking than Huckleberry Finn and more educational as well. While Twain is excellent at crafting just how much the culture has affected Huck in his attitudes towards Jim, Taylor has given us a book that shows us how that sort of mindset affects those it’s directed towards. It is shocking in its blatant honesty, and it’s not a book where you set it down and are satisfied.

Basically, I want to gush about Roll of Thunder till the cows come home. This is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. Highly deserving of that Newbery Medal and of all the rewards, both now and forever.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2O8Wcyk

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Keeping the Castle, by Patrice Kindl, was published in 1978 by Dutton.

Seventeen-year-old Althea bears a heavy burden on her slender shoulders. She must support her widowed mother, young brother, and two stepsisters who plead poverty—and she must maintain Crawley Castle, a tumbledown folly designed and built by her great-grandfather. Althea, in short, must marry well. But there are few wealthy suitors—or suitors of any kind—their small Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo. Then Lord Boring comes to stay with his aunt and uncle. Althea immediately starts a clever, stealthy campaign to become Lady boring. There’s only one problem; his cousin and business manager, Mr. Fredericks, keeps getting in the way. And, as it turns out, Fredericks has his own set of plans…

Rating: 5/5

Keeping the Castle is a fun, sweet, short historical romance akin to Jane Austen (though only in plot, not substance) or Georgette Heyer. I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but I didn’t find myself caring in the least bit—I had a smile on my face the entire time. It’s cute, it’s indulgent, it’s funny—a lot like Blackmoore or Edenbrooke in terms of how I felt about it, but better written then those two books, I thought.

The book does have a very Austenian plot, a little bit of a mix between Pride & Prejudice and Emma. There’s a lot of focus on money and class, and the tension between the “Old Money” and the “New Money” classes is very clear (Althea is horrified at Lord Boring’s shop-owning cousin, Mr. Fredericks, and his bumbling, rude ways). There’s nothing surprising about the plot in terms of romance, though there are one or two interesting things that happen along the way that are slightly unexpected.

I feel like Kindl had a great time writing this book; it’s very tongue-in-cheek (Lord “Boring,” Dr. Haxhamptonshire (pronounced “Hamster”), etc.) and really it feels like Kindl wanted to capture a lot of Austen charm without the more advanced language and with a bit of a modern touch (in terms of writing, not in terms of setting).

Keeping the Castle was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I love books like these, especially ones that are written to be funny, as opposed to those which are meant to be serious but wind up being humorous because they’re trying too hard. It was a great relaxing, de-stressing book, and I want to read all of Kindl’s other novels now.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2M6SCjj

1988 Newbery Medal: Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman

Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman, was published in 1987 by Clarion.

Abraham Lincoln stood out in a crowd as much for his wit and rollicking humor as for his height. Here is a warm, appealing biography of our Civil War president, illustrated with dozens of carefully chosen photographs and prints. Russel Freedman begins with a lively account of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood, his career as a country lawyer, and his courtship and marriage to Mary Todd. Then the author focuses on the presidential years (1861 to 1865), skillfully explaining the many complex issues Lincoln grappled with as he led a deeply divided nation through the Civil War. The book’s final chapter is a moving account of that tragic evening in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

Rating: 5/5

A truly deserving Newbery Medal winner, Lincoln: A Photobiography takes us through the life of Abraham Lincoln from childhood to death, complete with photographs and prints of written documents. I learned a lot about Lincoln I hadn’t before, as well as much about the Civil War period that I hadn’t known.

Freedman neither idolizes nor demonizes Lincoln, instead taking a refreshing, objective viewpoint as he recounts Lincoln’s ideas, motivations, and political aspirations. I had never before known that Lincoln started out quite lukewarm about slavery—convinced it was bad, but unsure about what, exactly, he could do about something so deeply grounded in culture. It was only the pressure and tension from the Civil War that gave him both the will and the power to accomplish emancipation, when he was in a position where he could no longer be so easily browbeaten by opposing forces.

I also appreciated how Freedman lists his research and additional resources in the back of the book. Sometimes many biographies aimed for children can leave out this information, assumingly because they think children will have no need or interest for such things. I, however, appreciate seeing both the effort the author made in creating the work and making it accurate, and the additional information that I can utilize for myself if I am so inclined.

Lincoln: A Photobiography is a wonderful read, highlighting the life of one of America’s most famous presidents, a man whose legacy lives on today. The research Freedman put into this book is exhaustive and well explained, and the photos add another layer of depth and interest. There’s also much about the culture and the thought of the time that I found enlightening. A fantastic book, and great to use for reports or the like for school assignments.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

Lincoln is best known as the Great Emancipator, the man who freed the slaves. Yet he did not enter the war with that idea in mind. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” he said in 1862, “and is not either to save or destroy slavery.” As the war continued, Lincoln’s attitude changed. Eventually he came to regard the conflict as a moral crusade to wipe out the sin of slavery.

No black leader was more critical of Lincoln than the fiery abolitionist writer and editor Frederick Douglass….Later, Douglass changed his mind and came to admire Lincoln. Several years after the war, he said this about the sixteenth president:

“His greatest mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery….taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considered the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2rHdqG0

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl, was published in 1964 by Knopf.

Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory is opening at last! But only five lucky children will be allowed inside. And the winners are: Augustus Gloop, an enormously fat boy whose hobby is eating; Veruca Salt, a spoiled-rotten brat whose parents are wrapped around her little finger; Violet Beauregarde, a dim-witted gum-chewer with the fastest jaws around; Mike Teavee, a toy pistol-toting gangster-in-training who is obsessed with television; and Charlie Bucket, Our Hero, a boy who is honest and kind, brave and true, and good and ready for the wildest time of his life!

Rating: 5/5

To be honest, I really don’t know what to say about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s a well-known, beloved children’s book for many people. There have been two films based on it—the less accurate, but much-loved Gene Wilder version, and the more accurate, but weird Johnny Depp version. Nestlé once had (or perhaps still has) a whole Wonka candy line. It’s hard to add to all of what has already been said about it.

I never realized, growing up, how moralizing this book is. Each child in the story represents something: Augustus—gluttony, Violet—obnoxiousness (or something like that; Violet seems the most sympathetic of the bunch, at least according to the Oompa Loompas), Veruca—selfishness, Mike—TV addiction. These negative traits are expounded in each Oompa Loompa song. There’s also digs at the parents, too, especially in Veruca’s case (her parents get a mention in her song). Each child is presented with an obstacle that exactly highlights their negative trait, which they then get punished for, until in the end, there’s only Charlie, the best boy of them all, left. It’s all wrapped up in cute chocolate factory candy land with adorable, silly Oompa Loompas, but Dahl really packs a punch with those songs.

At its heart, it’s an incredibly fun book, and you can tell Dahl had a great time thinking up all of Wonka’s inventions. The moral of the story is quite obvious, but Dahl delivers it with a lot of fun and style, and perhaps because it’s so familiar of a story it’s not so terrible when the Oompa Loompas sing the lesson of the chapter. There’s also some great things Dahl says about family, and Charlie Bucket is as unselfish and lovely a boy as you could ever imagine—yet still manages to avoid being too perfect (though, again, that might be familiarity talking. I expect Charlie to be that way because he’s a foil to the other characters). In any other book, this sort of thing wouldn’t work. But since it’s Dahl, and it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it works perfectly.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2I6snLR

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon

The Doldrums, by Nicholas Gannon, was published in 2015 by HarperCollins.

Archer B. Helmsley has grown up in a house full of oddities and treasures collected by his grandparents, the famous explorers. He knows every nook and cranny. He knows them all too well. After all, ever since his grandparents went missing on an iceberg, his mother barely lets him leave the house. Archer B. Helmsley longs for adventure. Grand adventures, with parachutes and exotic sunsets and interesting characters. But how can he have an adventure when he can’t leave his house? It helps that he has friends like Adelaide L. Belmont, who must have had many adventures to end up with a wooden leg. (Perhaps from a run-in with a crocodile. Perhaps not.) And Oliver Glub. Oliver will worry about all the details (so Archer doesn’t have to). Archer, Adelaide, and Oliver make a plan. A plan to get out of the house, out of their town entirely. It’s a good plan. Well, it’s not bad, anyway. But nothing goes quite as they expect.

Rating: 5/5

The Doldrums is a whimsical, light-hearted story about a boy who longs to have an adventure and, especially, to meet his grandparents. He befriends two other children, one a down-to-earth boy and the other an imaginative girl, and together they plot a way to get Archer out of his house and on his way to see his grandparents. A controlling mother who wants to keep Archer from becoming his grandparents and a strict, overbearing teacher help bring in some tension and conflict for the characters.

What really won me over in this book wasn’t the story, though that was delightful. It was really the beautiful color illustrations. I am a sucker for color illustrations, and these were perfect and fit the mood of the book so well. I also love whimsical stories at heart—stories that aren’t too absurd as to be farcical, that are light and funny and charming and interesting. That’s exactly what The Doldrums is, and it is so perfect for anyone who is in “the doldrums” because it will lift them out immediately. It’s a very cheering book, in my opinion.

The Doldrums is one of the more stand-out books I’ve read in a long time. It was delightful and charming, and the color illustrations were gorgeous. There’s absurdity in the book, but it’s more whimsical than anything. Archer learns important lessons about family and imagination, and everything is bright and cheery and lovely. The book entranced me and swept me up. It’s probably not a book for everyone, but it was a delight for me.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade

Archer opened his bag and handed Oliver a mobile made of fish.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” Oliver asked.

“Use the headband,” said Archer. “Strap it to your head.”

Oliver considered this and then, like any good sidekick, strapped the fish to his head. “Why am I strapping fish to his head?” he asked.

‘To set the mood,” said Archer.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IcQ6ZS

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie by Kristiana Gregory

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

Thirteen-year-old Hattie Campbell’s father dreamed of a new life in Oregon. He dreamed of free land, mild winters, and good soil. He wanted to leave behind a life in Missouri marked by an increased population, high taxes, and sad memories of young children dead from swamp fever. Reluctantly, Augusta Campbell agrees to join her husband, and Hattie and family find themselves on a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail. Hattie’s diary entries tell a story of daily encounters with death: a baby, an old man, river drownings, dead oxen. Such sadness is countered with Hattie’s observations of love, the miracle of new life, and the kindness of people who help each other through desperate times. The Oregon Trail and Hattie’s fellow pioneers help her to face her fears and emerge a stronger young woman. Hattie’s exciting journey to Oregon is one marked by geographic peaks and valleys as well as the peaks and valleys of emotions the pioneers experienced on their grueling trip.

Rating: 5/5

I believe Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie was the first Dear America book I owned, and, as a result, it’s the one I’ve read the most. Hattie’s trip across the Oregon Trail never grew old for me, and with each read I grasped some aspect that had alluded me the previous time.

There’s lots of tragedy and death in this book, as you might expect from an account of the Oregon Trail. There is not much on the actual incentive to go West—there’s a brief mention of “manifest destiny”—nor is there a whole lot on conflicts and tensions between the Native American tribes and the travelers, but Gregory’s extensive historical notes in the back of the book do address these issues. First and foremost, this is simply the diary of a young girl on her way to Oregon, and it reads exactly like that. The voice of Hattie is perfect, and the voice of the author is distant, if it’s even discernible at all.

Tragedy aside, there’s lots of heartwarming instances in this book, as well as a valuable lesson on forgiveness and friendship. In a day and age where novels that feature bitter people getting their “comeuppance” by the people they’ve hurt, Hattie’s interactions with Mrs. Kenker, the grieving hoarder, is a welcome relief. The people around Hattie help her understand, and she uses that understanding to show compassion. It’s a beautiful message, and one that is badly needed today.

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie is one of my favorite Dear America novels. It is seamlessly integrated, pulls no punches in terms of historicity, and is memorable, exciting, tragic and heartwarming. There’s a reason Gregory’s Dear America novels are some of my favorites—she’s captured the appropriate balance and atmosphere of these books perfectly.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2I1a8nF