All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, by Leslie Connor, was published in 2016 by Katherine Tegen.

Eleven-year-old Perry T. Cook shouldn’t be living in a prison; he has committed no crime. Perry was born and raised at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in tiny Surprise, Nebraska. His mom is a resident on Cell Block C. So far, Warden Daugherty has made it possible for them to be together. Anyone who knows about the arrangement is quietly okay with it. But when Perry is discovered by the new, ambitious district attorney, Thomas VanLeer, everything changes. Forced to foster with the VanLeer family, Perry lives on “the outside” but feels trapped. His mom’s parole hearing is just weeks away, but the rule bending that allowed Perry to stay with her could mean she’ll get more prison time. Desperate to be reunited with his mom, Perry goes on a quest to learn the whole truth behind their Blue River story. But will the facts help them or hurt them? Can he find a way to tell everyone what home truly means?

Rating: 5/5

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook has a premise that’s hard to buy, but is filled with so much heart, charm, and lovely moments that Connor (who acknowledges the lack of realism) gets away with it. Perry is sweet at the right times and strong at the right times, and although I’m not a huge fan of “kids know better than adults” trope, it works well here—because, let’s face it, sometimes the innocence of kids is exactly what makes them better able to handle and/or know certain things than adults.

Besides Perry, the adult characters in the novel are all fully fleshed-out. I was especially happy that VanLeer, the “villain” of the novel, was also three-dimensional—his motives are understandable, his failings are understandable, and Perry’s thoughts about him at the end of the novel are spot-on. Brian Morris, the other “villain,” also gets some dimension to his character, though his is not explained as well.

The only thing I’m disappointed in is that the resolution that I wanted to happen with Perry and his father didn’t happen. I suppose it’s understandable, and it’s probably more realistic this way, but I did want to see something there. However, Connor’s message running throughout that entire plot thread was a good one, showing how far someone will go to protect the ones they love and that sometimes, as time passes, the importance of setting things right/meting out proper justice is not as important as saving loved ones. Through Perry’s mother, Connor shows us that, just as Perry and his mother have no regrets, neither should we, the readers, have any regrets as to the revelations and outcomes of the novel.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook is a charming, heartwarming novel, chock-full of interesting characters and important messages. Perry’s sweetness is nicely tempered with his bouts of anger at his and his mother’s situation, VanLeer is understandable and relatable in his role as “villain,” and the rest of the characters get their own little moments to shine in ways that minor characters often don’t have. The novel did not end as I hoped it would, but upon reflection, it ended in the way that was best for what Connor was trying to say.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade

“You may know, I’m the Butler County district attorney,” Mr. VanLeer says. “Funny thing about that,” Big Ed says. “I always thought the DA was supposed to work for the people. And here it seems to me that you’re working against these people.” He fans his hand toward Mom and me.

“Well, I believe I’m righting a wrong in this case,” Mr. VanLeer says. He is still smiling and nodding. “Which brings me to my business. We all know why I’m here.”

“Here to take away our Morning Son,” Big Ed says.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2wcgASQ

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2002 Newbery Medal: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park, was published in 2001 by Clarion.

Tree-ear is an orphan boy in a twelfth-century Korean potters’ village. For a long time he is content to live with Crane-man under a bridge, barely surviving on scraps of food. All of that changes when Tree-ear sees master potter Min making his beautiful pottery. Tree-ear sneaks into Min’s workplace and dreams of creating his own pots someday. When he accidentally breaks a pot, he must work for the master to pay for the damage. Though the work is long and hard, Tree-ear is eager to learn. Then he is sent to the King’s Court to show the master’s pottery. Little does Tree-ear know that this difficult and dangerous journey will change his life forever.

Rating: 5/5

A Single Shard is a short book, but it’s wonderfully crafted and much more engaging than you would think a book about pottery would be. I found every aspect of the book, to Tree-ear sneaking through the foliage to peek at Min’s work, to working at Min’s shop, to his journey to the royal commissioner, intriguing. It’s a simple little book, but it’s full of soul and charm.

The book also teaches quite a bit about celadon pottery and Park manages to show the process without dragging the book down in unnecessary or boring detail. Even as the centerpiece of the novel, the pottery aspect is balanced just enough so that the book doesn’t seem like a “how-to” guide. Tree-ear’s wonder and curiosity helps with the balance, as well.

I can see why A Single Shard won the Newbery Medal; it’s equal parts informative, delightful, and, yes, even tense. Tree-ear is a darling protagonist, conveying all the politeness that the Korean culture requires but with the inexorable energy of youth. There are good lessons woven throughout in the shape of Crane-man’s advice to Tree-ear, never overly moralizing or out of place. And the background and content is historically rich and informative, showing off the research Park did and melding it with a delightful little story about a boy who wants to make pottery and the journey he must take to do so.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Honorable potter? Sir? Could I not work for you, as payment? Perhaps my help could save you some time…”

Min shook his head impatiently. “What could you do, an untrained child? I have no time to teach you—you would be more trouble than help.”

Tree-ear stepped forward eagerly. “You would not need to teach so much as you think, sir. I have been watching you for many months now. I know how you mix the clay and turn the wheel—I have watched you make many things…”

The potter waved one hand to cut off the boy’s words and spoke with derision. “Turn the wheel! Ha! He thinks he can sit and make a pot—just like that!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2hl9Nmo

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, was published in 1991 by Multnomah.

California’s gold country, 1850. A time when men sold their souls for a bag of gold and women sold their bodies for a place to sleep. Angel expects nothing from men but betrayal. Sold into prostitution as a child, she survives by keeping her hatred alive. And what she hates most are the men who use her, leaving her empty and dead inside. Then she meets Michael Hosea, a man who seeks his Father’s heart in everything. Michael obeys God’s call to marry Angel and to love her unconditionally. Slowly, day by day, he defies Angel’s every bitter expectation, until despite her resistance, her frozen heart begins to thaw. But with her unexpected softening comes overwhelming feelings of unworthiness and fear. And so Angel runs. Back to the darkness, away from her husband’s pursuing love, terrified of the truth she no longer can deny: her final healing must come from the One who loves her even more than Michael does…the One who will never let her go.

Rating: 4/5

I think people have been telling me to read Redeeming Love since college. College, at least, is when I first heard the book mentioned. Recently, a coworker of mine recommended it to me after a conversation I had with her about the Christian fiction I review. Then, as I was browsing the book selection at Goodwill, I saw a copy and decided to give it a try.

And I ended up really enjoying it.

Redeeming Love is one of the better historical romances I’ve read. It’s compelling and tense and Angel is such a complex character, developed well so that your heart breaks for her as she struggles to come to grips with the idea of love and redemption. The introduction of side characters to Michael and Angel’s lives keeps the story flowing and prevents it from being the same back-and-forth between the two for its entirety. The novel is rarely, if ever, over-the-top or contrived and, as I’ll discuss next, not overly hokey.

The Christianity aspect of the novel was done very well, especially in terms of Angel’s struggle and the end of the novel. There were very few parts that I thought were hokey and/or cheesy, mostly consisting of when God was speaking to Michael. That part was the hardest to swallow for me and it’s also very hard to pull off in a narrative. Perhaps I’m just too skeptical, but I found it hard to believe that God would have such a constant, inner dialogue with Michael. I mean, I get it, it’s a book and it’s also supposed to reflect Hosea and Gomer, but still—not only did I struggle to relate to those parts of the novel, but it was distracting and, as I said, a little hokey. What was more effective was Angel’s inner thoughts (the devil?) and the brief snatches of “God thoughts” she did get—not a full-blown conversation, but more snatches, glimpses, strong inclinations that resonate more with my experience.

Redeeming Love made me cry and it made me stay up late on a school night in order to finish reading it. That’s high praise from me, especially from a Christian fiction book. It was character-driven, compelling, heart-breaking and ultimately joyful. The whole book was a celebration of love that redeems and picks people up from the darkest, deepest areas of life and changes them forever. Not everything about it was perfect, but it definitely falls into the category of Christian fiction that I would recommend to others—and possibly even reread myself.

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Prostitution, mentions of rape, sexual situations.

Genre: Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2uEpvhS

The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford

The Left-Handed Fate, by Kate Milford, was published in 2016 by Henry Holt.

Lucy Bluecrowne and Maxwell Ault are on a mission: find the three pieces of a strange and arcane engine they believe can stop the endless war raging between their home country of England and Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. During the search, however, their ship, the famous privateer the Left-Handed Fate, is taken by the Americans, who have just declared war on England, too. The Fate (and, with it, Lucy and Max) is put under the command of new midshipman Oliver Dexter…who’s only just turned twelve. But Lucy and Max aren’t the only ones trying to assemble the engine; the French are after it, as well as the crew of a mysterious vessel that seems able to appear out of thin air. When Oliver discovers what his prisoners are really up to—and how dangerous the device could be if it falls into the wrong hands—he is faced with a choice: Help Lucy and Max even if it makes him a traitor to his own country? Or follow orders and risk endangering countless lives, including those of the enemies who have somehow become his friends?

Rating: 5/5

Kate Milford has done it again. I loved her book Greenglass House and The Left-Handed Fate is—nearly—as perfect. It’s a well-written, intriguing, fascinating historical fiction with hints (and more than hints) of fantasy woven through it. It gives a great deal of information about the War of 1812 and seamanship in general. Every character is interesting and they interact in ways that are believable in each circumstance they run into.

Apparently this book is a continuation/companion of other books Milford has written about Nagspeake, but it’s not necessary to have read them. I had no trouble at all understanding the world and I have only read Greenglass House before this one. There is enough explained with the characters that nothing seems missing; backstory is given when necessary and when not, small details are given that fill in possible gaps. Milford does a great job of bringing in an audience who may not be familiar with her other books.

I said The Left-Handed Fate was nearly perfect, so now here’s the ways I felt it faltered a bit—not enough to drop its rating, ultimately, but enough for me to comment on.

First, there’s a conversation between Liao and Max that is really odd, or maybe teeth-clenching irritating, or simply nonsensical. Basically, Liao believes that weapons have feelings and that they like it better if they’re used for good rather than evil, which makes absolutely no sense but he’s nine, so whatever. Then Max starts thinking about cannons/gunpowder being chemical reactions and then thinks about how people are exactly like that. Yes, people are exactly like cannons. Just chemical reactions. That explains why we have thoughts and emotions. You know, just like cannons. *eyeroll*

Second, the whole Copley thing is very hard to believe. Even harder to believe than a black ship that appears out of nowhere. I mean, the latter is clearly magic. The former is…some combination of magic and science fiction? An artificial intelligence brought to life by a golden elixir? I don’t know—for some reason, I had a hard time accepting that part of the book. I can do ghostly black ships and blue lights appearing out of nowhere. I can’t do a computer that functions on magical juice.

However, those flaws are not serious enough to significantly affect my liking of The Left-Handed Fate. Overall, I thought it was well written, engaging, and a wonderful historical fiction novel.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

“I had that piece for years,” Jeton said. “It was brought to me damaged and the repairs were complicated, but they only took as long as they did because I made them take that long. I strung the work out as long as I possibly could, in hopes that your father would answer my letter or turn up. If either he or you had managed to get here before war had been declared, you could have had it, and welcome. I would have lied to the owner, claimed the shop had been robbed—I had the whole story worked out. But you didn’t arrive in time.”

“My father couldn’t come because he was dead,” Max retorted. “It made traveling difficult for him, you understand.”

Jeton’s eyes hardened at the sarcasm. “It was more than a year and a half ago that your father passed, may he rest in peace.”

“I came as soon as I could!” Max said wretchedly. “And then we were attacked twice in the Chesapeake. If not for that, we should have been here before—”

“But you weren’t here, and we are at war, and I will not turn traitor. There are those who might do it, but I am not one of them.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2pUH2k5

Fairy Tale Friday: Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale, was published in 2007 by Bloomsbury.

When Dashti, a maid, and Lady Saren, her mistress, are shut in a tower for seven years because of Saren’s refusal to marry a man she despise, the two prepare for a very long and dark imprisonment. As food runs low and the days go from broiling hot to freezing cold, it is all Dashti can do to keep them fed and comfortable. With the arrival outside the tower of Saren’s two suitors—one welcome, the other decidedly less so—the girls are confronted with both hope and great danger, and Dashti must make the desperate choices of a girl whose life is worth more than she knows.

Rating: 5/5

Based off of the little-known Grimm’s fairy tale “Maid Maleen,” Book of a Thousand Days is an engaging, beautiful read of a girl who has to hold herself and her mistress together as they are imprisoned in a tower and then forced into hiding in another country. Dashti is the heart and soul of the book, a female protagonist who is not overtly strong or rebellious against societal conventions, but quietly steadfast and persistent and brave. She’s clever and witty, but not overly outspoken, and she’s basically everything I want in a female protagonist.

Simply put, I devoured this book and its lovely romance. I liked that even though Dashti is the narrator, there are still things the reader will catch onto before she does, such as the nature of Saren’s relationship with Tegus and even, perhaps, the secret of Lord Khasar. I liked that Saren, as annoying as she could get, was at least understandable, in a way, and that she develops, too, and becomes less of an obstacle that Dashti must endure and more of a character.

Book of a Thousand Days is lovely, an adaptation of a fairy tale I’d never heard of (though Hale states she wasn’t particularly true to the original) that is simple, yet engaging all the same. I liked the sweet moments scattered between all the tense and unsure moments; the book has a very good balance of low and high points. This book has redeemed Hale in my eyes a bit after the disappointing sequels to Princess Academy.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Young Adult

My lady removed her hand and started to pace and fret and rub her head. She looked as if she’d like to run away, had there been anywhere to run. My poor lady.

“Say you are me.”

“What?” But why, my lady?”

“You are my maid, Dashti,” she said, and though she still shook like a rabbit, her voice was hard and full of the knowledge that she’s gentry. “It is my right to have my maid speak for me. I don’t’ like to speak to someone directly. What if it isn’t really him? What if he means us harm?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2qBiM6s

The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

The Golden Goblet, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, was published in 1961 by Puffin.

Ranofer wants only one thing in the world: to be a master goldsmith like his beloved father was. But how can he when he is all but imprisoned by his evil half-brother, Gebu? Ranofer knows the only way he can escape Gebu’s abuse is by changing his destiny. But can a poor boy with no skills survive on the cutthroat streets of ancient Thebes? Then Ranofer finds a priceless golden goblet in Gebu’s room and he knows his luck—and his destiny—are about to change…

Rating: 5/5

Filled with rich imagery, detailed description, and enough tension to keep the reader satisfied between pictures of goldsmithing and stonecutting, The Golden Goblet is a wonderful book about bravery, standing up for what’s right, and striving to achieve one’s goal. This book is a worthy Newbery Honor winner (beaten by The Bronze Bow; McGraw also had two other Newbery Honor books).

The distinct style and vocabulary might make it hard for some readers to get into the book, but it lends itself well to the setting and after a little bit you get used to it (and it makes Ranofer sound even more daydreamy and wishful than he is already portrayed, which fits). It would feel strange for a book set in ancient Egypt (roughly around 1360 BC, if the Queen Tiy in the book was supposed to be Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III) to have modernized vocabulary, so the wordy, sometimes flowery sentences fit the book better.

The summary is a little deceptive, in that it takes a very long time for Ranofer to actually find the goblet and the summary makes it seem as if it happens fairly early on (at least it seemed that way to me), but it’s only a small hitch in an otherwise intriguing and captivating book. I would recommend this book to 4th graders and up. Its lack of female characters should not deter girls from reading it, as 1.) the Queen plays a large role in the end and 2.)it’s an accurate representation of ancient Egyptian society—which means The Golden Goblet could also be read as a supplement to a history class.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“But if Gebu is seized for the thefts—”

“Gebu will never be seized. Only Ibni, or I.”

Heqet thought a moment. “You refused to take that wineskin yesterday.”

“Aye.” Ranofer gave an involuntary shiver. “I’ll not refuse the next one, you may be sure of it. Gebu is a devil, I tell you. I do not want to go on thieving for him, yet I must until Rekh is told.”

“Then Rekh must be told.”

“Aye, but I cannot do it. I cannot, Heqet! Therefore—”

“Therefore what?”

“Therefore I want you to tell him!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2o9GNko

Erak’s Ransom by John Flanagan

Erak’s Ransom, by John Flanagan, was published in 2007 by Philomel. It is the sequel (but chronologically the prequel) to The Siege of Macindaw.

What does it mean to earn the Silver Oakleaf? So few men have done so. For Will, a mere boy and apprentice to the most difficult Ranger to please, that symbol of honor has long seemed out of reach. If he is to ever earn it, he must prove himself in ways he never imagined. Now, in the wake of Araluen’s uneasy truce with the raiding Skandians comes word that the Skandian leader, Erak, has been captured by a desert tribe. The Rangers, along with a small party of warriors, are sent to free him. But the desert is like nothing else these warriors have seen before. Strangers in a strange land, they are brutalized by sandstorms, beaten by the unrelenting heat, tricked by one tribe that plays by its own rules, and surprisingly befriended by another. Like a mirage, nothing is as it seems. Yet one thing is constant: the bravery of the Rangers.

Rating: 5/5

After four books that were two sets of two-parters, it’s refreshing to read the jam-packed, stand-alone Erak’s Ransom. It actually highlights the weaknesses of the two-parter books, especially the Part 1s, which is the uneven pace and the overly long set-up. Erak’s Ransom, as a “filler” book telling the story of how Will got his silver oakleaf, a story that was skipped over between The Battle for Skandia and The Sorcerer of the North, is understandably a stand-alone—and works phenomenally well because of it.

There are only a few missteps in this book, at least in my opinion, one of them being Tug’s manipulation of another horse during a race. I suppose it’s plausible, but it didn’t quite fit the story, as impressive and heartwarming as the actual moment was. Otherwise, the book is a perfect combination of humor, tension, and action, with enough plausibility behind events that when everything comes together in the end, it’s believable. Flanagan also does quite a bit of foreshadowing, at least with regards to one character, and while it’s a bit of a Chekhov’s Gun, it’s also awesome and very fitting.

I think Erak’s Ransom may be my favorite Ranger’s Apprentice book so far. It’s also the one I remember the most, probably because I also really liked it when I first read it. This is the first stand-alone book since The Icebound Land (arguably the first one in the series, since the first two books connect) and it works: the pace is fast, but not too fast so as to seem rushed, the action is well distributed and the tension is executed well. Erak’s Ransom, being the story of Will becoming a fully-fledged Ranger, is, appropriately enough, also the novel that takes the series to a whole new level.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“You know the old saying: ‘one riot, one Ranger.’”

The saying stemmed from a legendary event in the past. A minor fief had risen up against their cruel and avaricious lord, with hundreds of people surrounding his manor house, threatening to burn it to the ground. The panicked nobleman’s message for help was answered by the arrival of a single Ranger. Aghast, the nobleman confronted the solitary cowled figure.

“They sent one Ranger?” he said incredulously. “One man?”

“How many riots do you have?” the Ranger replied.

On this occasion, however, Duncan was not incline to be swayed by legend. “I have a new saying,” he replied. “One daughter, two Rangers.”

“Two and a half,” Will corrected him. The king couldn’t help smiling at the eager young face before him.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he said. “Two and three-quarters.”

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2nQ743a

Fairy Tale Friday: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier, was published in 2000 by Tor.

Lovely young Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by the brothers who love and protect her: Liam, the natural leader; Diarmid, with his passion for adventure; the twins, Cormack and Conor, each with a different calling; the young, compassionate Padriac…and her other heart, rebellious Finbar, grown old before his time by his gift of the Sight. Sorcha is the light in their lives, and in her young life she has known only peace and happiness. But that joy is destroyed when her father is bewitched by the woman who has won his hear and her brothers are bound by a spell that only Sorcha can lift. To reclaim the lives of her brothers, Sorcha leaves the only safe place she has ever known and embarks on a journey filled with pain, loss, and terror. When she is kidnapped by enemy forces and taken to a foreign land, it seems that there will be no way for Sorcha to break the spell that condemns all that she loves. But magic knows now boundaries, and Sorcha must choose between the life she has always known, promises made…and a love that comes only once. And in that choice, perhaps shattering her world.

Rating: 5/5

Daughter of the Forest is a stunning retelling of “The Wild Swans” fairytale. Marillier beautifully combines the fairytale with a Celtic setting, blending history with fantasy seamlessly. While the novel starts off slowly, once the initial set-up to the fairytale begins, the book flies by as the reader is swept up into Sorcha’s journey.

And what a journey it is. Sorcha is a wonderful protagonist, quietly strong and steadfast in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I love female protagonists of this sort, so it helped me connect with Sorcha even more. Marillier has perfectly crafted the circumstances and the effects; everything Sorcha does is explainable and believable in light of the world and the plot and what happens to her is also so, even the terrible parts. Fair warning, there is quite a violent, difficult scene to read at the beginning of Sorcha’s quest to free her brothers. It’s not graphically detailed, but it’s not glossed over at all—so, in a way, it’s much more graphically detailed than you might expect. Sometimes authors use things like this as a device or as another obstacle the protagonist must climb, but I feel like Marillier included it more for worldbuilding’s sake, to depict just how cruel the world can be at times. Or perhaps it’s to show how deep Sorcha’s bond with Red became, or perhaps it’s both. In any case, it’s handled deftly by Marillier.

That leads me to the thing I adored most about this book, which was Sorcha and Red. I think I’ve mentioned before that I tend to love the “agonizing” types of romance more than most other types, and Daughter of the Forest is full of agonizing—from Red, from Sorcha, from the people around them who see what’s happening and feel powerless to do anything about it. The relationship is slowly and beautifully developed, to the point where I cried at a particular part of the book that is poignant and beautiful and made me not want to put the book down even though I had to go to bed. And the romance ends perfectly, too, in a wonderfully satisfying way—usually I feel disappointed at the end of a book, or at the moment the love interests get together. But not in this book. In this book, I felt nothing but satisfaction.

I thought I loved Marillier already from reading her previous books, like Shadowfell and Wildwood Dancing, but Daughter of the Forest made me adore her. It’s a fantastic fairy tale adaptation, but it’s also a fantastic story, filled with love, loss, sorrow, pain, hope, and all the other things that make a particularly good book stand out from the rest. There are some hard things to read in this book, but there are many more beautiful things, and, like Sorcha, the reader comes to the end with a remembrance of the pain but with the knowledge that things are, as much as they can be in that world, going towards “happily ever after.”

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Violence, death, rape.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale

“Listen to me, Sorcha. No matter where we are, or what we do, the seven of us will never be truly separate. We’ll always be the same for one another. But we are growing up; and grown up people do marry, and move away, and let other people into their lives. Even you will do that one day.”

“Me!” I was aghast.

“You must know that.” He moved closer and took my hand, and I noticed that his were large and rough, a man’s hands. He was seventeen now. “Father already plans a marriage for you, in a few years’ time, and doubtless then you will go away to live with your husband’s family. We will not all remain here.”

“Go away? I would never go away from Sevenwaters! This is home! I would die before I’d move away!”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2mEPqig

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

Our Only May Amelia, by Jennifer L. Holm, was published in 1999 by HarperCollins.

May Amelia Jackson is the only girl ever born on the Nasel River—A Real Miracle, her family says. And with seven brothers she believes it. Most of the time she forgets that she’s a girl, like when she wears her overalls to go fishing with Wilbert or helps Uncle Aarno and the boys make the fishing nets. Bu sometimes her family does treat her like A Miracle, and it’s just plain maddening, like when Pappa yells at her for running around the logging camp or orders her to stay in the house because there’s a real live murderer on the loose. Once in a while, though, it’s good to be treated like a Miracle and have a whole family looking after their only May Amelia. Still, what May thinks would be the greatest Miracle of all is if the baby in her mamma’s belly turned out to be a girl. Will May always be their only Miracle, or will the new baby be the little sister she’s been hoping for?

Rating: 5/5

I read Our Only May Amelia a long time ago, and even though I didn’t remember specific aspects of the plot, I still remembered the sense of it, if that makes sense (ha). I remembered that there was something sad, and I remembered that at the end of the book May’s family gathers around her for some reason, and I remembered that there were lots of “Our Only May Amelia’s” in the dialogue. But other than that, I didn’t much remember anything else, so it was almost as if I was reading the book for the first time.

It took me a little bit to get used to the fact that there are no quotation marks in the book, but once I got into the flow of it I stopped noticing their absence. I can see why Our Only May Amelia received a Newbery Honor—it’s sweet, it’s poignant, it’s alive, it’s sad and funny and bittersweet in all the right places. It captures both the freedom of living and the hardships that go along with that freedom. It captures the rough and the smooth sides of families and how people show their love in different ways (or not at all). It shows the hospitality of neighbors and the close-knit community of cultures. In short, it’s a perfect little snapshot of life.

While I think the book might deal with too many complicated issues for a younger reader (I teach 4th grade and I don’t think it would be well suited for that age), Our Only May Amelia would be a great book to give to a middle-grade reader. It’s serious enough for discussion, but light enough for laughs and the genuine pleasure of reading. Maybe the nostalgia increased the quality factor in my eyes, but Our Only May Amelia is a lovely book about family, loss, and love that encompasses timeless qualities even as it describes a specific time in history.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

Outside the window the sky is black and the stars are winking at me. I watch the fireflies dancing in the field and realize my birthday is nearly over, and I haven’t made my secret birthday wish yet. Mamma says that a wish made on a birthday always comes true. I don’t know about that, though. Last year I wished for Kaarlo to stop being so mean to me all the time, but he’s still the same mean old Kaarlo.

Still, it can’t hurt to try. I think hard but it’s an easy wish. I can’t tell anyone, not even Wilbert and he is my very best brother. I can’t tell him because he’ll never understand what it is like to be me, May Amelia Jackson, the only Jackson girl, and the only girl in Nasel.

I squeeze my eyes tight and wish hard with my heart that Mamma has a little baby girl so that I can have a sister.

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The Safe-Keeper’s Secret by Sharon Shinn

The Safe-Keeper’s Secret by Sharon Shinn was published in 2004 by Viking.

Damiana is Safe-Keeper in the small village of Tambleham. Neighbors and strangers alike come one by one, in secret, to tell her things they dare not share with anyone else, knowing that Damiana will keep them to herself. One late night, a mysterious visitor from the city arrives with an unusual secret for the Safe-Keeper—a newborn baby. Damiana, who is expecting her own child, agrees to take the foundling. She names him Reed and raises him side by side with her daughter, Fiona. As the years pass and the two children grow in to teenagers, they must come to terms with who they are—and who they may be.

Rating: 5/5

I was not expecting to be so caught up in The Safe-Keeper’s Daughter as I was while reading. Looking at the cover, I thought it looked interesting but might ultimately end up being contrived or disappointing or any other number of things to make it less than appealing to me. Starting the first chapter, I thought it seemed interesting but might end up becoming a trudge.

And then I became completely enthralled.

I’m not even sure what it was. Something about the characters, the world, and the conflict caught me up. I had a hard time putting the book down; not because it’s particularly gripping, but because I wanted to know what happened next. I was fascinated by the “magic” of the book, by the Safe-Keepers, the Truth-Tellers, and the Dream-Makers. I was struck by the tight bonds between the characters and the way those bonds shone through in their gatherings together. And I was intrigued by the mystery of the book, of the question of fathers and mothers and familial ties.

Of course, I guessed correctly halfway through the book, if only because I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat if this turned out to be true?” and lo and behold, I turned out to be right. It was not a surprising reveal, but it was a satisfying one, and there was another reveal that I did not guess that fulfilled the “shock factor” (if also the “okay, I think that’s stretching it a little bit” factor).

The Safe-Keeper’s Daughter was neither a trudge nor a disappointment. I ate up every word, even after I had figured most of the plot out, and I’m glad that a book that at first glanced seemed like another poor fantasy turned out to be so appealing to me. I like it when books surprise me. I hope Shinn’s novels continue to do so.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Some dark secrets are told in the book. Beware of hints and tellings of murder, infidelity, abortion and incest.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Fiona gave him a sharp glance, then took the whistle from his hand. Putting her mouth against the blowhole and her fingers on the openings of the pipe, she breathed in.

But no sound came out.

She tried again and again, each time blowing harder, but the whistle would issue no music. “I don’t understand,” she said at last. “Why doesn’t it work? Is it broken?”

Thomas shook his head. He was still standing with his hand against the trunk of the tree, watching her with his shadowed eyes. “Because a kirrenberry tree won’t make a sound,” he said. “You can cut its branches to make two sticks that you hit together along with the beat in a reel—but they make no sound. Hit it with an ax and the tree yields up no ringing noise. Fell it in the forest, and you will not hear it toppling to the ground. A whistle makes no music. Birds who land in its branches forget their own songs.”

Now she was frowning. “That makes no sense.”

He nodded. “That’s why the kirrenberry tree is planted in front of the house of every Safe-Keeper in every village from her to the Cormeon Sea. Because a kirrenberry tree signifies silence.”

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