The Hidden Side by Heidi Chiavaroli

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the author. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

Having read a book by Chiavaroli before (The Edge of Mercy), I went into The Hidden Side familiar with her style and curious to see if some of the things that fell a little flat for me in the previous book I read would do the same thing here.

The Hidden Side (and Chiavaroli’s style in general) is really two stories running concurrently—a contemporary one and a historical one. The contemporary one tells the story of the Abbott family and their struggles to hold on to their family and their faith after a devastating and terrible act is committed by the son. The historical one is about Mercy Howard, who becomes a Patriot spy (one of the Culper Ring, I believe) to ferret out British secrets during the Revolutionary War and discovers lots of things about love and faith along the way.

If you’re wondering how in the world Chiavaroli connects the two stories together, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Both stories would be fine on their own, but together, the relation between the two, the reason why Natalie Abbott is reading the journal of Mercy Howard and why the reader should care, is a little thin. It’s explained, and probably makes a lot of sense, but I never really thought about it because my interest was never in Mercy Howard’s story at all—in fact, I only skimmed her chapters. To me, it made no sense to have that story in this book because all it did was distract from the real shining star, which was the gut-wrenching, difficult story of a family struggling to make sense of why evil things happen. This was also my problem with The Edge of Mercy—the historical entry in that book also, I felt, took away from the much more powerful contemporary one.

I won’t go into the struggle the Abbott family faces in this novel, as I think it’s best to experience it as it’s presented in the novel, but it’s an issue that strikes terrifyingly close to society today. Chiavaroli pulls no punches, but also shows deep sympathy for the complicated tangle of knots that causes evil and that evil causes. It’s comprehensive and nuanced, and I applaud Chiavaroli for taking such a difficult subject head-on and showing the effects and consequences of evil, and how people can move past it without losing love, mercy, or justice.

Warnings: Violence, bullying, mentions of rape.

Genre: Realistic, Historical Fiction, Christian

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2n0byIX

The Girl Behind the Red Rope by Ted Dekker and Rachelle Dekker

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Girl Behind the Red Rope by Ted and Rachelle Dekker, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

I’ve never read anything by Ted Dekker before; all I know about him is that he’s a fairly popular Christian author. He teamed up with his daughter, also an author, for The Girl Behind the Red Rope, a book that initially seems to simply be about a cult that separates itself from the world, but then delves into Frank Peretti territory with ghosts/beings called the Fury and a Jesus-like child named Eli.

Honestly, I think I would have preferred this book simply to be an exploration of a cult—I probably would have been far more interested. That’s not to say the book was bad, but I’m simply not a fan of angels and demons materializing and talking to people (or attacking them). And the fact that I wasn’t prepared for the supernatural aspect of this book meant that I was really confused by a lot of things that happened at the beginning until I realized the true genre of the book. Perhaps that’s something I would have expected going in if I knew more about Ted Dekker’s works, though.

The Girl Behind the Red Rope is hugely allegorical, to the point of repetitiveness at times. There’s the demon creatures “the Fury,” whom the cult at Haven Valley have cut themselves off from the world to avoid. There’s the mysterious being Sylous, who appears to Rose, the leader, and gives ominous advice. Then there’sEli, who I think isn’t supposed to be Jesus, but is also supposed to be Jesus…it’s a bit confusing. All the allegory/metaphors are compounded at the end by everyone talking about love, light, darkness, and fear for pages on end—that’s where the repetitiveness comes in. Actually, the whole thing reminded me just a little bit of John Bibee’s Spirit Flyer series, which used similar ideas of demons, chains, and captivity to illustrate biblical concepts. Just like in this book, though, Bibee also went a bit overboard in capturing his image.

I suppose I can see why Ted Dekker is popular, but for me, I’d prefer a book that tones down the symbolism explanation and is a bit less on-the-nose in regards to theme. The Girl Behind the Red Rope is far from terrible, but my expectation of it was “cult novel” and I got “cult novel but with demons and angels,” which isn’t really my favorite thing to read.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Realistic

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

1983 Newbery Medal: Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt

Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voigt, was published in 1982 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5        

Dicey’s Song is the second in a series, and while reading the first book, Homecoming, will certainly help with knowing the characters and the backstory, enough is explained that it’s not necessary. The story is about Dicey and her younger brothers and sister as they navigate a new home, a new school, and all the troubles and pain that their situation (absent father, sick mother) warrants. While the main focus is on Dicey’s internal conflict as well as her relationship with her grandmother, there is also focus on her relationship with her classmates, her teachers, and her siblings. Oh, and there’s a bit of mother-daughter relationship/conflict as well.

Voigt does a good job of dealing with all the various emotions and conflicts present in the book. There’s a lot of characters, but most of them are complex and interesting. The relationship between Dicey and Gram, with its give-and-take, learning aspect, is great. She’s a bit heavy-handed with her theme, but for a children’s book it’s appropriate, especially one dealing with such heavy topics as this one does (depression, dyslexia, death, and grief). My only raised eyebrow was when James was so adamant that he knew the right way to teach Maybelle. I don’t think Voigt was intending it as a “this is what you should do,” but it came across that way a bit.

This is the penultimate Newbery Medal book I read. It’s a little bittersweet, but also immensely satisfying. I don’t think Dicey’s Song will reach my list of top favorites, but I think it was more emotionally satisfying than many other Newbery Medals, as well as more interesting and memorable.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LV78f9

1967 Newbery Medal: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt, was published in 1966 by Modern Curriculum Press.

Rating: 3/5

Up a Road Slowly reminds me a little bit of a lesser Anne of Green Gables, but much more of Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm, except with less moralizing and a nicer aunt. It’s the story of Julie, who at seven goes to live with her aunt after her mother dies and learns new meanings of love and family as she deals with her older sister getting married, her wild uncle, school rivalries, the death of a student, and boyfriends. However, like Rebecca, it’s much less tongue-in-cheek than Anne, and it uses a ton of plot tropes and language that is extremely reminiscent of older literature and really dates the book.

The writing style is a little old-fashioned and very mature-sounding, even when Julie is only seven (something that is a bit jarring until you get used to it). As Julie gets older, however, she grows into her voice, and I do believe the whole thing is supposed to suggest that Julie is writing this as a memoir from later on in her life. As far as plot and theme go, I thought Hunt’s messages were very good, though they were often delivered in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable today. For example, the description of Agnes, Julie’s classmate who suffered from some sort of mental disability, made me wince a bit, though that would have been an acceptable description in the 60s. However, the language as a whole really gives the book much more of an old-fashioned feel than I think the decade it was written in warrants.

There’s also quite a few dark themes hidden in the book, the most notable being Julie’s old friend Carlotta being “sent away” for the winter after scandal erupts (i.e. she was pregnant). The book as a whole is really quite mature for a children’s book, much more suited for a young adult audience (who would probably understand it and enjoy it more).

I enjoyed Up a Road Slowly, but I didn’t find it overly impressive, and I think it’s too dated to really stand out. The maturity of the themes and the writing were welcome after some of the rather more childish books I’ve read, but that limits the audience as well as alienates them. A good book, but not one I’d probably revisit.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31I8q3i

1995 Newbery Medal: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, was published in 1994 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5

Walk Two Moons is an interesting coming-of-age (coming-to-terms?) story about Salamanca Hiddle, her cross-country trip with her grandparents, and a flashback story about her friend Phoebe. The premise revolves around the trip to Idaho because Salamanca is desperate to bring her mother (who left and never came back) home, but a central part of the story is also Phoebe’s experience with her own mother. In fact, the two stories serve as foils/mirrors of each other.

I say “interesting” for several reasons. One is because of the voice. There’s a distinctive tone to the whole novel, helped by words like “jing bang,” “wing-dinging,” “thumpingly,” and the like. Phoebe’s voice is the perfect melodramatic pre-teen’s, complete with italics and mood swings. The voice is really what got me to start really enjoying the novel because it help me get past a few other things that I found puzzling.

Another reason the novel is interesting (and this one is used in more of the “in-teresting…” way, like people say when they either don’t care about what the person is saying or find the whole thing very suspicious) is the Indian slant Creech gives it. She includes multiple references to Salamanca’s Indian heritage and commentary on Indian folklore and culture. Yet most of it smacks of Creech’s ideas, and what Creech wants to communicate, rather than of the real thing. Really, it just seems like Creech was in love with Indian culture and so added it to her book. It’s completely useless and adds nothing at all.

I did really enjoy the book, but one thing that puzzled me was if Creech really wanted the mystery of Salamanca’s mother to remain so for the whole book, or if the reader was supposed to figure it out very quickly. To support the latter theory, it states very early on, incredibly specifically, what happened to Salamanca’s mother. Yet Creech spends the whole rest of the book using vague terms and mystery language until the moment Salamanca reaches Idaho, and then everything is explained. Perhaps Creech wanted the reader to know the result, but not the why? I don’t know. I just thought it was confusing that she kept dancing around the issue as if she hadn’t revealed it in the second chapter.

Walk Two Moons falters a bit because of its random and useless inclusion of Native American culture, as well as the baffling “Wait, don’t we already know about Salamanca’s mother?” question. However, the story itself is great, especially Phoebe’s, and the way Creech deals with themes like death and change is well done.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2YLa3zg

The String by Caleb Breakey

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The String, by Caleb Breakey, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 2/5

The String is like Criminal Minds mixed with a cop or spy movie. There’s a psychopathic killer who has blackmailed/coerced several people to become members of his “string” and who are forced to do his bidding. Enter plucky university cop Markus Haas, who is determined to stop him, and things start going crazy.

Look, if you like this sort of suspense novel, which is heavy on violence, psychological horror, and the like, then this book is definitely for you. It’s a bit long for what is a relatively simple plot, but Breakey manages to pull a few surprising twists and turns along the way. He also manages to accomplish the difficult task of making the villain understandable, but not sympathetic.

There’s a couple of reasons why I rated this book so low. One is that I simply couldn’t enjoy it. I had to stop watching Criminal Minds for a reason, and it’s that I can’t handle large doses of darkness. And the way this book is written, we’re meant to indulge in that darkness a bit; it’s supposed to drive our enjoyment of a novel, and that really doesn’t sit well with me. There’s only so much manipulation, violence, and caught-between-rock-and-hard-place moral dilemmas I can deal with.

Another reason is that I was disappointed that this book is only superficially Christian. Okay, so Stephanie is a Christian in this book, and Haas is sort of thinking about it. Yet Stephanie barely does anything beyond a quick prayer once or twice. This book could have truly delved into the Christian response to this sort of psychopathic evil, and what people do, and all those sorts of interesting moral dilemmas, and I would have loved to see way more prayer, way more Bible reading, and way more appeals to God. Instead we get some occasional mentions and that’s it.

I don’t know, perhaps Breakey didn’t want to be preachy or something. Or maybe his goal was simply to write a suspense book, never mind the religion of the characters. But I felt that there was so much opportunity lost by not having the characters react more in ways that really demonstrated their Christian beliefs.

Warnings: Lots of violence, psychopathy, hints of child abuse

Genre: Realistic, Suspense/Thriller

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2Mt0v5I

1993 Newbery Medal: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant, was published in 1992 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Missing May is yet another Newbery Medal winner that baffles me. It’s a book about grief, and learning to move past grief, but there’s nothing overwhelming special about it and the book is so short that it’s hard to get a firm grasp of the characters or even their development. The entire book hinges on a trip to some Spiritualist Church so that Summer, Cletus, and Ob can summon the ghost of Ob’s wife May (or something). And then everything is resolved in the space of a single paragraph.

Okay, so there’s a little bit more going on than that. There’s the relationship between Cletus and Summer, Cletus and Ob, and Cletus, Summer, and Ob. There’s Summer realizing that Cletus isn’t the person he appears, and that other people don’t view him the way she does. And there’s a bit of a peek into Summer and Ob’s relationship, though most of the book is focused on May and Summer. But, again, the book is so short that there’s not enough time for all of these dimensions to be fully explored. Rylant does a fairly good job, but it mostly relies on cramming development into single sentences (like with the resolution of the novel).

Plus, the whole premise is strange. Ob “sense” the “ghost” of May, then is determined to go call up her ghost because he misses her so much, so they plan a trip to make a séance. The exploration of grief is interesting and needed, but the ghost stuff skews the focus, in my opinion. And, again, the book is too short to achieve any sense of fulfillment or development!

Missing May will go on the “How did this win?” list, as well as the “I won’t remember this in two days” list. The theme of the story—grief and overcoming grief—is important, but the spiritualism makes the whole book strange, and the character development, like the plot, is rushed and poorly resolved.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Yswm93

2018 Newbery Medal: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly, was published in 2017 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 1/5

Sometimes I really wonder what is going through the minds of those who pick the Newbery Medal books. There are those Newbery Medals that are really wow! books, and there are those that are more eh, shrug, move on. Then there are the books that I’ve really questioned, like Secret of the Andes beating Charlotte’s Web, or Daniel Boone winning the Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Hello, Universe is a book that I question.

For one thing, the plot of this book is glacially slow. There are 311 pages, and 231 of those pages cover the same day. The entire plot of the book is based around a couple of hours in the lives of four kids, and there’s simply not enough excitement to make the pace feel fast at all. In addition, the plot itself is simplistic and bare-bones. The characters stand around and talk most of the time. And Chet, the bully, is stereotypical and overexaggerated. At least Kelly gave some insight into his behavior by giving him chapters that explored his home life. 

For another, Kelly utilizes the most irritating trend of contemporary literature: the third person/first person point of view switch. I have never understood this. It’s more annoying than first person present tense. Of the four kids, three of them get 3rd person treatment. Valencia gets 1st person. Why? What is the point? Also, why are her chapters only ever titled “Valencia”? Everyone else gets titled chapters as per the content. Valencia’s chapters are only ever given her name. Why? What is the point?

This book does, though, offer fascinating insight into the minds of readers today. They seem to value diversity over everything else, even story, and they expect their diverse characters to act appropriately diversely by following quite rigid patterns and speaking and acting only in ways that are deemed appropriate. This book celebrates diversity, with Virgil (Filipino), Kaori (Japanese), and Valencia (deaf), and then showcases that diversity everywhere. “Look at this book! It’s diverse!” is shouted from every page. This is a good thing, and Kelly avoids old stereotypes in all of her portrayals, though her attempts at bullying were a little excessive, in my opinion.

Yet, in my opinion, Kelly sacrifices a good story at the altar of diversity. What good is highlighting diversity if you can’t also create a compelling, interesting story? It is possible to create fantastic stories with diverse characters, so why are people seemingly settling for less? All Hello, Universe shows is that Kelly capitalized on the diversity trend without bothering with what makes a book actually memorable and long-lasting, which is the story. In my opinion, it cheapens diversity to a selling point.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Psychics, astrology, way too many uses of the word “retard.”

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

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

2019 Newbery Medal: Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina, was published in 2018 by Candlewick.

Rating: 3/5

I loved Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn, a YA book that dealt with a tough (and rarely discussed) topic. So I was interested to see how her foray into MG would be like, especially since it won the Newbery Medal. My verdict? Merci Suárez Changes Gears is disappointingly average.

It lacks some oomph, some sparkle, some sort of thing that would make it so much better than it is. Maybe the writing needed to be jazzed up. Maybe the platitudes and the cheesy way the book ended helped to keep it weighed down in “mediocre” territory. It’s not that the topic wasn’t relevant, or that the book was boring. It was simply missing…something.

I did appreciate the more nuanced sort of look at school troubles that Medina gave, though. I do have to give her credit for creating a realistic school atmosphere, and a more realistic look at bullying. I myself had way more experience with bullies who were friendly one day and mean the next, rather than the “I have a personal vendetta against you” bully that is so often portrayed, so I felt Medina’s take was much more reflective of what actually occurs, showing how navigating friendships and other people is complicated, especially in the tumultuous preteen and teen years.

However, that does leave me wondering as to why no one ever writes a story from the bully’s point of view. Where are all the books about the Ednas? Why does no author bother to tackle that sort of challenge?

Anyway, Merci Suárez Changes Gears doesn’t break out of any boxes or push any boundaries in terms of writing conventions or tropes. It’s a disappointing book, one that could have been much better with just a little something extra added to it to truly make it shine.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Iz69AP

All Manner of Things by Susie Finkbeiner

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of All Manner of Things, by Susie Finkbeiner, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

All Manner of Things takes place during the Vietnam War, and while the main character has a brother who joins the army, and certain details of the culture of the time and the negative attitude towards the war is shown, there’s so much more to the book than just that. There’s also the theme of war in general, and how it affects people—Annie, the main character, has a father who was left with PTSD or similar after the Korean War, and abandoned the family while she was young. After the brother leaves to go to Vietnam, he gives her information about where her father is, starting a chain of events that leads to the father coming back into their lives, but not particularly nicely or neatly. The way Finkbeiner handles the way the family navigates the reappareance of a long-absence father is very well done.

Finkbeiner also includes aspects of the Civil Rights movement as well, though not too much. Annie starts up a friendship with a black man, David, and while everyone seems okay with it, it’s very clear that David is considered an outsider. Overall, I enjoyed the fact that Finkbeiner didn’t make the novel as dark and angsty as it could have been. It was a very light, wholesome novel, despite the sad parts.

All Manner of Things is very carefully and cleverly constructed. The characters have great voices, especially the three children (well, technically two are young adults): Mike, Annie, and Joel. The mother is perhaps the flattest of all the characters, but everyone’s interactions are all very well done. The letters in between each chapter are also really good at communicating tone and atmosphere.

I really enjoyed All Manner of Things, so I debated for a while whether to give a 4 rating or not. However, in the end I felt the book was missing something. It was just one step away from being entirely engrossing. As it was, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel absorbed by it. I was able to put it down easily and walk away. It was just missing some sort of connection for me. I’d probably recommend it to other people, but it didn’t have the sort of pull that would make me come back to it again.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian, Realistic

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