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…
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.
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.
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+
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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+
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.
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.
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.
Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk, was published in 2017 by Dutton.
Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift in a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow’s only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar. Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn’t until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.
Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was one of my favorite books of 2016, so I was excited to jump into her new book, Beyond the Bright Sea. And it’s as memorable and powerful as her first book, combining a tough, yet still child-like protagonist (whose moments of “Would a child really say or do that?” are mitigated by the time period and the circumstances) with a gripping plot and an interesting historical context.
Crow learns important lessons about family, bravery, and identity throughout the book, lessons that are subtly done and are interwoven well with the plot. I do have issues with Osh’s statement of “What you do is who you are” because it too closely intertwines behavior with self, leading to the belief that if one hates a behavior, they must therefore hate the person doing that behavior, which isn’t true in the slightest. Luckily, it isn’t dwelt on very much in the book, nor does that statement seem to be Wolk’s main focus, so I was able to put aside my disgruntlement.
For people who love diversity in books, this one checks off all the boxes: both Osh and Crow are non-white; Osh is presumably a Native American (or possibly Inuit? It was very vague), while Crow is (again, vague) described as “dark,” presumably with African heritage. There’s an interesting conversation between Osh and Miss Maggie about Osh’s origins, which in comparison to, say, the extreme heavy-handedness in Rae Carson’s Walk On Earth a Stranger, was lightly critical without getting preachy. There’s also a fun scene where Crow sees someone of her own race and is both shocked and delighted.
Beyond the Bright Sea’s plot doesn’t have particularly unique or new twists and turns, but it is compelling; the story is powerful and gripping, the messages are good and executed well, and the characters are interesting. Wolk blends talking points with natural flow very well, making things less preachy, and at the end of the book her message about family stands strong.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade
I pulled up on the twine and found a ring nestled in the fold of cloth. I held it up in the light and was surprised to see the gleam of a red gemstone.
It was too big, even for my biggest finger.
“Do you think I’m from Newport, then?” I whispered. “From a rich family?”
Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnatses. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day, digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes. It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize that Camp Green Lake isn’t what it seems .Are the boys digging holes because the warden is looking for something? But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? It’s up to Stanley to dig up the truth.
I love Holes. I consider the movie with Shia LeBeouf to be one of the most faithful film adaptations of a book out there (plus, it has Dulé Hill/Gus from Psych as Sam), so I really enjoyed picking this book up again.
Holes is wacky, unbelievable fun, basically. The whole premise revolves around this detention camp that troubled teenagers are sent to instead of going to jail. At the camp, they dig holes, because why not? While there, Stanley uncovers (dare I say, digs up) secrets about the Warden, the nature of the camp, and his own past.
There’s a whole lot of convenience to the plot, but it’s already so out there as a premise that it’s really not hard to swallow all the convenience, too. And at the end of the book, Sachar pokes fun, a little, at the camp and the things the Warden got away with, so as strange as it is, it works.
I’m not sure why Holes won a Newbery Medal, but I’m glad it did. While the main plot with Stanley is wacky, the story-within-a-story that is told as the novel goes on is heartbreaking. The story of Katherine and Sam is the real jewel of the story; simplistic on the surface, but with so much packed in underneath. Sachar conveys the thoughts and feelings of the time in a few pages that reveals all of its unfairness before you even realize it. Furthermore, the tie-in is good, too; Sachar weaves all the stories together in fantastic fashion, connecting everything together in simple, yet effective, ways.
Holes is a great book. It’s fun, memorable, and has more moments of heartbreak, tension, and emotion than you might expect from the premise. It makes me want to watch the movie, really, but it also makes me glad that I reread this book and got to experience it all over again.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Realistic
“I’m finished,” Stanley said, putting his blood-spotted cap back on his head.
“All right!” said Mr. Pendanski, raising his hand for a high five, but Stanley ignored it. He didn’t have the strength.
(…) Mr. Pendanski climbed back into the truck without filling Stanley’s canteen. Stanley waited for him to drive away, then took another look at his hole. He knew it was nothing to be proud of, but he felt proud nonetheless.
Disclaimer: Love Thy Body, by Nancy Pearcey, was provided by Baker Books. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
In Love Thy Body, Nancy R. Pearcey goes beyond politically correct slogans with a riveting exposé of the dehumanizing worldview behind [transgenderism, homosexuality, abortion] and other watershed moral issues. Pearcey turns the tables on the media boilerplate that portrays Christianity as harsh and hateful. A former agnostic, she makes a surprising case that Christianity sustains the dignity of the body and accords with science and biology. Throughout, she entrances readers with compassionate stories of people wrestling with hard questions in their own lives—their pain, their struggles, their triumphs.
My rating: 5/5
Love Thy Body is an extremely relevant, incredibly important look at the dominating cultural idea of the body and how society, while claiming to uplift it, has actually denigrated it to nothing more than matter: expendable, disposable, useless matter. Pearcey covers abortion, euthanasia, the hook-up culture, transgenderism, homosexuality, and marriage, and how this Gnostic view of the body is engrained in each of those topics.
The book is replete with personal stories, statistics, studies, defenders, opponents—basically, the research done was tremendous, and incredibly in-depth and detailed. Pearcey also interweaves Christian messages and doctrine and Scripture into each topic to serve as application at the end of each chapter—and it’s much needed, as the hope of those sections balance out the heavy feeling of despair that covering these topics may induce in the reader (and definitely induced in me!). Pearcey is not just pointing a finger and saying “This is what this idea means; this is what it will lead to,” but she’s also saying, “Here’s how we can help combat this idea, and here’s how we can defend and preserve a view that’s uplifting and holistic.”
This book is vitally important in understanding just how some of the views being touted in society are actually dehumanizing. At the same time, Pearcey cautions against falling back into a way of thinking that is rigidly stereotypical and constrained. She’s not afraid to criticize some of the things Christians have (over)emphasized in order to combat culture (which in turn has led to problems of its own), which shows a presence of fairness and objectivity that is important in a book that’s tackling such heavy issues as these. If you want to understand more about some of the most important cultural issues of today, and especially if you want to know the worldview behind these issues, Love Thy Body is exactly the book you need to read.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, was first published in 1905.
In the midst of the French Revolution, a cunning masked hero rescues would-be victims of the guillotine, but his identity remains a mystery. His friends and foes known him only as the Scarlet Pimpernel. But government agent Paul Chauvelin is determined to find out who this man really is and to put an end to his defiance of the French government.
When I finished reading The Scarlet Pimpernel, I had a huge smile on my face. Full of spies, intrigue, drama, tension, romance, and some fiendishly clever disguises, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a delight through and through. Baroness Orczy weaves a fantastic story taking place during the French Revolution and starring a mysterious hero who rescues French aristocrats right out from under the noses of the people looking to kill them.
The book does start out a little slowly, but starts picking almost immediately after the point of view switches to Marguerite Blakeney. I thought she was a great protagonist, filled with just the right amount of courage, fear, and cleverness. She doesn’t sit back helplessly, but she also isn’t out there wrestling men to the ground, either. She’s basically a normal woman, which is really quite refreshing after reading a lot of female protagonists who are unrelatable and/or male caricatures.
There’s a prominent romance plot tied in with the overall Scarlet Pimpernel plot, but it’s done very well and fairly realistically. It’s quite a sweet romance, and it lends itself well in both explaining Marguerite’s motives as well as making sure everything turns out happily. But the most interesting plot is, of course, the one involving the Scarlet Pimpernel. Orczy really does some fantastic work in it. The secret of the Scarlet Pimpernel may be a little obvious, but the true gem is the complex, fascinating “heist” that takes up the last third of the book. I call it a heist if only because I can’t think of another word to call it. “Mission” could work, I suppose. I figured everything out quite early on, but it was still a delight to watch everything unfold.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Scarlet Pimpernel and it has become one of my new favorite books. I had it read to me when I was little, so I went into the book knowing the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and guessed almost everything else correctly, but it was still engaging and a delightful read.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Classic, Historical Fiction
“The Scarlet Pimpernel works in the dark, and his identity is only known under the solemn oath of secrecy to his immediate followers.”
“The Scarlet Pimpernel!” said Suzanne, with a merry laugh. “Why! what a droll name! What is the Scarlet Pimpernel, Monsieur?”
… “The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mademoiselle,” [Sir Andrew] said at last “is the name of a humble English wayside flower; but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man in all the world, so that he may better succeed in accomplishing the noble task he has set himself to do.”
Disclaimer: Under a Cloudless Sky, by Chris Fabry, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
1933. In the mining town of Beulah Mountain, West Virginia, two young girls form an unbreakable bond against the lush Appalachian landscape, coal dust and old hymns filling their lungs and hearts. Despite the polarizing forces of their fathers—one a mine owner, one a disgruntled miner—Ruby and Bean thrive under the tender care of Bean’s mama, blissfully unaware of the rising conflict in town and the coming tragedy that will tear them apart forever. 2004. Hollis Beasley is taking his last stand. Neighbors up and down the hollow have sold their land to Coleman Coal and Energy, but Hollis is determined to hold on to his family legacy on Beulah Mountain. In his way is Buddy Coleman, an upstart mining executive who hopes to revitalize the dying town by increasing coal production and opening the Company Store Museum. He’ll pay homage to the past—even the massacre of 1933—while positioning the company for growth at all costs. What surprises them all is how their stories will intersect with a feisty octogenarian living hundreds of miles away. When Ruby Handley Freeman’s grown children threaten her independence, she takes a stand of her own and disappears, beginning a journey to face a decades-old secret that will change everything for her and those she meets.
Under a Cloudless Sky is a mesmerizing, gripping read, telling the story of Hollis Beasley and his efforts to preserve his land, and the story of Ruby Freeman, who’s faced with struggles from various angles. It’s also the story of Ruby’s daughter, Frances, and Hollis’s granddaughter, Charlotte, and those stories are intermingled with the 1933 story as we learn about young Ruby and her friend Bean in the days leading up to a significant tragedy.
Fabry is a fantastic storyteller, weaving together the various points-of-view and the two different time periods effortlessly. I never felt jarred or bothered by the back-and-forth, and the switching was done effectively, creating just the right amount of tension and curiosity. His characterization is amazing, as well; even the characters that are focused on for only a small amount of time are fleshed out and interesting, with the exception of Buddy Coleman.
I did figure out a majority of the plot before it was revealed in the book, but it was such an exciting moment for me when I did figure it out that it can hardly be considered a negative. I could hardly wait for the characters to confirm what I had discovered.
The voice of the characters was great; the mechanics and the storytelling itself were gripping and artfully delivered; the entire book was difficult to put down. There were a few things here and there that I thought were amiss (the whole kidnapping bit in the middle of the book was odd and seemed to exist solely to flesh out Frances as a character), but overall, Under a Cloudless Sky was a worthwhile, thrilling read that made me excited for more of Fabry’s works.