Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis, was published in 2007 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

The setting of Elijah of Buxton is the Buxton Mission of Raleigh, Canada, founded in 1849 by Reverend William King as a refuge for escaped slaves. Elijah, the protagonist, is the first child of the settlement born into freedom. What Curtis does so well in this book is to show the stark contrast between Elijah and the other people he encounters who were slaves. We have Mr. Leroy, working to gain enough money to buy his wife and children. We have the Preacher, a fast-talking swindler with a few hidden depths. We have the runaway slaves Elijah finds later in the novel, who mention how different Elijah seems to them—in fact, he becomes a symbol of hope for those slaves.

Speaking of Mr. Leroy, he and Elijah share some of the best “page time” of the book, starting with Mr. Leroy lecturing (to put it nicely) Elijah on the use of a racial slur that slipped out of Elijah’s mouth (“You thinks just ‘cause that word come out from twixt your black lips it mean anything different?”), teaching a valuable lesson about language, the way it can be used to dehumanize others, and how an important step in freedom is also freeing oneself from the use of words that were only used to malign. Then there’s the adventure Mr. Leroy and Elijah go on towards the end of the book, culminating in Elijah running into some runaway slaves, realizing how much different it is for blacks (slave or not) in Chicago than his life in Buxton. Curtis does a fantastic job of showing the stark contrast between slave and free.

The antagonist of the story is the Preacher, though there’s a good argument to make that the main antagonist is slavery itself. Anyway, my curiosity was piqued by the Preacher, a conman who immediately ditches his conning when his target reveals his racism (or, at the very least, his insulting pandering), but then steals his friend’s money and runs away to Chicago, where he proceeds to gamble it away. What happens to him is dreadful, and Curtis makes it clear that no matter the Preacher’s sins, he didn’t deserve what he got.

Elijah of Buxton is a fantastic book, showing stark contrasts between slave and free, black and white, that existed in the 1850s. The only reason I didn’t rate it a 5 is because of the pacing—the beginning is far too long, and the ending is far too rushed. The summary also didn’t help with my perception of the pacing, either, promising me a far longer adventure than what was actually delivered. I also didn’t feel as if the Preacher’s motivations were developed very well. However, Curtis manages that fine line between brutal and child-friendly in portraying slavery, though it’s probably not suited for kids below 10. 

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence, slavery, racial slurs

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2p7ZtlU

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

First Class Murder, by Robin Stevens, was published in 2017 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Poison is Not Polite.

Rating: 4/5

First Class Murder is a subtle tribute to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I enjoyed the way Stevens paid homage to Christie’s novel in subtle ways, yet crafted a mystery entirely of her own making. A woman is murdered in her compartment and the ruby necklace around her neck has gone missing…as usual, there’s lots of suspects with plenty of motive, plus we get the added tension of Hazel and Daisy having to work around Hazel’s father’s strict ideas of what they should be doing.

As in the first two books, I didn’t really enjoy Daisy as a character—she’s far too blunt and rash. She does get a bit of characterization as she is continuing to deal with the aftermath of the mystery of the second book (which I’ve completely forgotten, but I remember took place in her own house), but most of the time she continues to be self-important and annoying.

Hazel gets a ton of development here, particularly in her relationship with her father. And, despite how I don’t like Daisy, I do like how Stevens frames it so that the reader clearly sees what each girl brings to the table and what each has that the other lacks. The difference in thought process and action in Daisy and Hazel lead to an effective detective team.

As for the mystery, it was a little too obvious for me—I knew during the body discovery scene what the murderer had done to navigate the locked room scenario, and I immediately picked up on most of the other clues regarding the murder. There were some side mysteries that I didn’t catch, though, and the final reveal did have some surprises, so I’m glad for that. I also enjoy that Stevens doesn’t have her detectives make awkward leaps in logic—they figure things out very naturally, which I appreciate.

First Class Murder was another enjoyable mystery by Stevens. Though still a little too obvious, Stevens did throw in some things that I didn’t catch right away, which meant there were still some surprises left by the end.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Mystery

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/3352baG

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, by Katherine Woodfine, was published in 2015 by Egmont.

Rating: 3/5        

I like a good mystery, and the back cover of this book appealed to me immensely, with its invitation/advertisement style. The feel of the book is great, too—the front cover exactly exudes the department-store atmosphere that runs throughout the book, and I loved the setting. Though I must say that the hat descriptions that separated each part seemed out of place and didn’t really contribute anything beyond a pretty illustration.

However, the story itself was a bit tepid. The characters are not developed enough, and so though on paper the four of them are quite interesting, in “the flesh” they lack a little oomph. Sophie is spirited, but flat; Joe is mysterious, but flat; Billy is…something; Lil is funny, but flat…you get the picture. And it doesn’t help that the mystery is framed in such a way that all four characters have to do something that stretches just beyond the bounds of believability. At least in Sophie’s case, part of it is mentioned as part of the villain’s ultimate plan—the fact that she was able to figure out so much stuff was solely due to the fact that she was placed in the exact room with all of the information and the secret door leading to the hiding place of the stolen goods, something another character points out as suspicious for the villain to have done without an ulterior motive (and thank goodness for that because otherwise that would have been the epitome of plot convenience).

However, the others get no such excuse, and so we have Lil lurking in corners and somehow never being discovered despite her lack of ability to be nonchalant or secretive about anything, and Billy successfully switching papers because no one even bothers to check that the envelope he handed over was the right one, and Joe being…well, being not really anything at all except the person who tells them about the Baron.

I mean, I’m sure for the audience that is intended, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is probably quite exciting and sufficiently mysterious, and the characters are interesting (if flat). But for me, the solving of the mystery and a lot of the action relied way too much on plot convenience.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

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

The King’s Fifth by Scott O’Dell

The King’s Fifth, by Scott O’Dell, was published in 1966 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 4/5

Despite the fact that I barely remember the first half of The King’s Fifth—due to distraction plus lack of memorability—I thought the latter half was quite good, which is why I gave it such a high rating. O’Dell has crafted a relatively even-handed story of the conquistador era, and how gold and greed led to trickery, violence, and even murder.
Esteban de Sandoval, a mapmaker, follows Captain Mendoza and his cohorts in the latter’s search for Cίbola and gold. Along the way, he is caught between the greed of the Spaniards and the peace of Zia, their Indian guide, and Father Francisco, a monk.

O’Dell shows very well the lengths men will go to for gold, as well as the terrible things that happen as a result. Coronado invades the city of Hawikuh, Mendoza steals from and kills several Indians, and the party starts to splinter from within because of greed. Even Esteban is not immune to it, as he starts acting more callous and selfish the more gold is available.

I didn’t remember much of the set-up of The King’s Fifth, beyond the trial sections, which were more interesting, but the last half of the book I thought was pretty good. It’s a good look at the way gold shaped the exploration of Mexico/the current Southern US, as well as how it shaped the treatment of the natives (and of people in general). The hint of romance between Esteban and Zia is, perhaps, a bit too sentimental and predictable, but that is a core part of what led him to resist greed at the end, so I suppose I can see why it was there (otherwise, there is only one other cause for Esteban to hide the gold, which I don’t think would have been enough to make it believable).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Hl8H4x

Lu by Jason Renolds

Lu, by Jason Reynolds, was published in 2018 by Atheneum. It is the sequel to Sunny.

Rating: 3/5                                                           

I was worried that Lu, despite being the last book in the series, would continue the same formula and tropes of the previous three books, which culminated in my dislike of Sunny. However, while the book reads very much like all the others (character-focused, with some sort of familial trouble/angst, and occasional odd quirks), thankfully Reynolds finally ditches his tired ending that he used three times before and did something new and fresh with this last book.

The ending is really what pulled this book up for me, because while it certainly isn’t bad, I couldn’t get into Lu’s head at all, much like I couldn’t with Sunny. There were moments that shone through, such as Lu’s softer side and his interactions with his parents, but then there were other moments that just confused me, like everything with Kelvin and his mysterious turnaround, as well as the vague descriptions of marks on his arm. Was Reynolds implying that he was a drug addict, or a victim of domestic violence, or what? What did the marks on his arms have to do with his bullying, and why did he stop when they were gone?

However, the ending I loved because it did exactly what I have wanted these books to do since I read Ghost—it ended with a defining character moment, not some cheap cliffhanger that doesn’t resolve anything. The ending of this book is fabulous, if a bit cheesy, and even if I couldn’t really relate to Lu, I still could see all the ways he grew throughout the book.

The Track series was a bit hit-or-miss for me, but they have the air and charm that I’m sure kids will love, and I liked that each book focused on a different person and how unique each character was. I also really enjoyed the voice and tone of the characters and the style Reynolds has. I hated the endings, and Sunny was a low spot, but the other three books, especially Ghost and Patina, are great.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

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

My Family for the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve

My Family for the War, by Anne C. Voorhoeve, was published in 2012 by Dial.

Rating: 3/5

World War II remains my absolute favorite setting for historical fiction. There’s so much courage and heroism and patriotism present, even among the terrible things happenings, that’s really uplifting. I mean, it’s “The Greatest Generation” for a reason.

My Family for the War is about Ziska, a Protestant with Jewish ancestry, who leaves Germany on a kindertransport right before the outbreak of WWII and stays with a Jewish family in London, who quickly become her family. The novel chronicles the entire length of the war, separated into three sections. It’s definitely a story about family, but it’s also a story about being adrift in the world, separated from your family, your culture, and your religion, and the things people do that help you reconcile all that change.

Since this is a translated book (it was originally published in German in 2007), some of the writing is a bit clunky, a bit more like reading a report or an essay on someone’s life than an immersive novel. I am blaming the translation for this, since I have nothing else to go on. Besides the writing, my one other complaint is that the book is way too long. It starts off really interesting, but towards the middle, things start dragging on and on, and it doesn’t start picking up again until towards the end of the novel. To be honest, both the writing and the length combine to make this book 3/5 rather than 4/5, as the strength of the story was not enough to overcome those.

However, this really is a great book, and it’s an especially good WWII children’s book. It pulls no punches in the German treatment of Jews—even people who do not even claim Judaism as their religion—and Ziska’s exploration of her heritage while staying with the Shepard family is well done. I really just wish the writing had been a bit more fluid, and that things hadn’t started dragging in the middle. It would have caused My Family for the War to be more cohesive and more powerful, and less like reading a report.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2XO1Kij

The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 2 by Diana Wynne Jones

The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 2: The Spellcoats and The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones, was published in 2005 by Greenwillow. It is the sequel to The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1.

Rating: 4/5

The last two stories in the Dalemark Quartet are the most connected of the four, though the fourth one unites all the characters as well as the villain from the third book. In my years-prior reading of these books, I’ve always thought these last two books were the weakest. However, I’m actually much more fond of the fourth book than I remember being, though I still think it has a few problems.

The Spellcoats takes us back to early Dalemark, with Tanaqui and her four siblings: Robin, Gull, Hern, and Mallard. Their journey begins when their father dies in the war and Gull comes back changed. This book introduces Kankredin, the villain of this book and the next, and his quest to take over Dalemark. It’s nice that Jones took the time to both build and show the history of Dalemark in these four books; all five of these characters are mentioned as legendary figures in the first two books, as well as in the last one. Jones also introduces the Undying in this book, godlike people with great power. Though some showed up in Drowned Ammet, I don’t remember them actually being called the Undying in that novel. Anyway, I quite enjoyed this look at early Dalemark, and the plot is actually quite twisty, with some great reveals—though the ending, in my opinion, leaves a little to be desired. It had to be that way because of the nature of the storytelling, but still, I wasn’t fond of it.

The Crown of Dalemark was published almost 15 years after The Spellcoats, which makes me wonder if Jones planned a quartet in the first place, or if she decided to make one more book after a while. This novel takes the characters from the first, second, and, yes, the third book as well, and puts them all together in a quest to find the missing crown of Dalemark in an effort to unite the country. The cleverest bit of this book is the time-travel—I love time-travel novels, and the fact that Jones did it in her own fantasy world is neat.

I really enjoyed this book, much more than I thought I would, and definitely much more than I remember liking it before. The time-travel is clever, and it’s nice to have all the characters come together. There are some great revelations in this book, and the ending is delightfully endearing. Mitt remains my favorite character, though Maewen is pretty great, too. As for its problems, I’ve simply always thought that Kankredin as the villain seemed too abrupt since he’s introduced in the third book and isn’t mentioned in the others at all. And, because of the gap in the publication dates, I’m guessing, some elements of this book seem to ring a little false in terms of worldbuilding, as if Jones had trouble remembering what she had already established. I’m thinking mostly of the Undying. Mostly, the problem with this book seems that Jones was trying too hard to connect this book, and the first two, with The Spellcoats. However, I now think I like this book second behind Drowned Ammet, though to be honest, all four of them are pretty solid.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2EE0Y0m

Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata

Weedflower, by Cynthia Kadohata, was published in 2006 by Atheneum.

Rating: 4/5

I actually had a hard time deciding what rating to give this book. Ultimately, I decided to go for the higher 4 rating, as opposed to a 3, because I really did enjoy Weedflower, and also because I’ve noticed that 3 has become almost my default rating. I’m trying to change that, but a lot of the books I’ve read lately haven’t been terrible, but haven’t been great—hence the constant 3 ratings.

Anyway, onto the actual book. This is the last novel in my “Japanese internment” reading pile, but the only one I’ve reviewed here (short reviews of the others [Dust of Eden, When the Emperor was Divine, and Beneath the Blood Red Sun] can be found on Goodreads). Weedflower may very well be my favorite, though I also quite liked Dust of Eden. It’s a detailed story about a Japanese family’s journey from their flower farm in California, to a relocation camp in Colorado, and then finally to Chicago (though the novel ends with them leaving the camp). While it doesn’t go too much into the politics and issues of the day, it was interesting to see how this book matched up with the other three books I read (except for Blood Red Sun, which didn’t have the family in a relocation camp). All had similar themes and, of course, similar accounts. I like that in novels about the same topic, if only because I’ve read same-topic-novels before that contradict each other.

The one thing I probably disliked the most about the novel was that it was a bit too long, and I think Kadohata tried to tackle a little bit too much. I get that the relocation camp they went to was an actual camp, and there was conflict with the Native Americans living there, but trying to tackle Japanese internment issues and Native American issues was too much. As a result, we got very little of the Native American, and it took away from some of the Japanese internment. Not to mention it made the book too long—partly why I thought so hard about what to rate it. I enjoyed the book up until about the last third; then I was ready for it to end.

Weedflower does an excellent job of communicating important details about the Japanese internment of World War II, not to mention the various thoughts and conflicts of the people at the time. It’s also interesting to note that this book is really quite tame and unaggressive in its politics—Sumiko actually wants to stay at the camp until Frank has a talk with her about freedom—and I learned a lot about this period in history.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

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

In the Coils of the Snake by Clare B. Dunkle

In the Coils of the Snake, by Clare B. Dunkle, was published in 2005 by Henry Holt. It is the sequel to Close Kin.

Rating: 3/5

In the Coils of the Snake concludes the Hollow Kingdom trilogy, with Marak, the dry, witty, best character in the first two books dying, and his son, Catspaw, taking his place. The book mainly deals with the marriage/romantic woes of Catspaw and Miranda, who were betrothed to be married when the arrival of an elf lord ruins everyone’s plans.

In the Coils of the Snake is probably my least favorite of the Hollow Kingdom trilogy. Much like Close Kin, where the focus of the book switched halfway through, the perspective switches back and forth between Miranda, Nir, and Catspaw, with the latter two being the more interesting. Miranda is a phlegmatic protagonist. At the beginning, she seems like a good character, very similar to Kate of the first book, but halfway through the book, she turns into a limpid, bemoaning character who mopes around the elf camp and barely does anything to contribute to the story beyond being a plot device.

Catspaw and Nir embody the goblin/elf conflict and the differences between the two races. We don’t get much from the perspective of Nir, but what we do get is suitably mysterious. Despite this being my least favorite book, Dunkle does do some good plotting—there is lots of foreshadowing and a big plot reveal at the end. The majority of it I managed to guess, but it was nice to see everything buildup to the big revelation.

My two favorite characters were Tattoo and Hunter, whose scenes together were my favorites in the book. They managed to pull up an overall disappointing book a little with their bonding as friends. Hollow Kingdom remains my favorite of the trilogy. I liked how in each book we got to see more of the world, but I wish the characterization and some of the overall mechanics had been better.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2TSg6wv

The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5

The Only Road was much less preachy and heavy-handed than I thought it would be Instead, Diaz tells a compelling story of two children fleeing their town in Guatemala after being targeted by the local gang. Their destination is, of course, the United States, where Jaime’s brother lives. They must travel through the security-heavy borders of Mexico and the US, hide from gangs and immigration officers, and try not to lose each other.

Diaz gives a chilling picture of what it is like to travel through Mexico in secret. Apparently, Mexico is not very fond of other Central or South American countries, and of course the US heavily patrols its borders, so Jaime and Angela must fake their way through a bus ride, almost die in a closed boxcar of a train, scrape up enough money to pay a coyote to take them across the Rio Grande, and then safely contact Jaime’s brother. And Diaz communicated all of this without ramming her ideas of immigration down the reader’s throat. Instead, she uses the story to paint the picture, a much subtler approach that I appreciate.

The only thing I struggled with in the book was the appearance and disappearance of Jaime and Angela’s traveling companions, as well as the abrupt, almost-too-happy ending. I do understand that it’s likely that traveling companions will leave, eventually, but it seems to go against the book a bit—though of course Diaz is perhaps just emphasizing the separation of friends at certain points. The ending, too, is almost too happy, where Jaime, Angela, and Tomas drive off into the sunrise and nothing else is offered regarding Jaime’s and Angela’s status as illegal immigrants. Perhaps it’s because this book is for children that Diaz decided to end it as she did.

The Only Road pleasantly surprised me, and overall, despite a few wobbles, it offers a compelling story about the reasons someone might flee their home and head for a better life in a new country. It also shows lots about Central American and South American culture, such as Mexico’s heavy security in regards to immigration and the people’s dislike of outsiders. It was interesting to read about, and I appreciated it that Diaz went for subtlety rather than outspokenness.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence, death, disturbing images

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

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