The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, was published in 1978 by Dutton.
This highly inventive mystery involved sixteen people (including a dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge, a bookie, a burglar, and a bomber) who are invited to the reading of the very strange will of the very rich Samuel W. Westing. They could become millionaires, depending on how they play the game. All they have to do is find the answer—but the answer to what? The Westing game is tricky and generous, but the heirs play on—through blizzards, burglaries, and bombings. Ellen Raskin has entangled a remarkable cast of characters in a puzzle-knotted, word-twisting plot filled with humor, intrigue, and suspense.
The Westing Game is a fun mystery/puzzle story, with a diverse and quirky cast of characters and a twisty-and-turny plot that, according to the introduction, the author made up as she went along. I’ve had this book recommended to me by a couple of people, so I knew when I started this Newbery Medal read that I would finally get a chance to see what it was all about.
At first, the characters can be hard to differentiate between, and none of their voices (or their interactions) seem quite accurate. However, as they start to get fleshed out and you become used to each character’s particular quirk, it becomes easier to tell them apart. Raskin was clearly aiming for humor/distinction rather than realism with these characters (and with her plot as a whole), so there’s still a little bit of separation there, but once the mystery really gets going, the odd absurd factor to the novel becomes less apparent.
Speaking of the mystery, it’s really quite fun. While I figured out the first half of it relatively quickly (almost as soon as the clues appeared), the rest was a surprise for me—especially the last part, which was almost too obscure (but not quite, making it rather brilliant). I wish there had been more to it, though—more clues, more steps, something. There was slightly too much in the middle that didn’t have to do with the clues and instead had to do with random revelations about each character (some of which didn’t really fit, like what we learn about Angela). It helped us get to know the characters more, but made that part of the mystery drag.
The multiple characters in The Westing Game are hard to get accustomed to at first, but once they get fleshed out it’s easier to tell them apart. The mystery is great—lots of twists and turns, obscure hints, red herrings, and a pretty cool reveal. However, there was almost too much going on in some parts, and the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked (why does Angela marry the intern after a whole book of her lamenting mournfully about marrying him??). It’s not quite on level with an Agatha Christie mystery (I have a bad habit of comparing all mysteries with hers), but it’s still great fun.
100 Cupboards, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2007 by Random House.
Twelve-year-old Henry York is going to sleep one night when he hears a bump on the attic wall above his head. It’s an unfamiliar house—Henry is staying with his aunt, uncle, and three cousins—so he tries to ignore it. But the next night he wakes up with bits of plaster in his hair. Two knobs have broken through the wall, and one of them is slowly turning…Henry scrapes the plaster off the wall and discovers doors—ninety-nine cupboards of all different sizes and shapes. Through one he can hear the sound of falling rain. Through another he sees a glowing room—with a man strolling back and forth! Henry and his cousin Henrietta soon understand that these are not just cupboards. They are, in fact, portals to other worlds.
100 Cupboards is a quirky, almost absurdist, fantasy. The premise is that Henry, who has gone to stay with his aunt and uncle, discovers that underneath the plaster in his room are many different cupboards. He soon realizes that they are portals to other worlds and—of course—that some of the things in those worlds want to come out. When his cousin disappears into one of the worlds, Henry must go in and get her—and not let anything else back out.
His sidekick/partner is his cousin, Henrietta (not sure why there’s all this fascination with the name, or variations of, Henry), who is rather annoying most of the time. I don’t have a lot of patience for impatient, headstrong characters. I mostly end up getting annoyed that they rush in and mess things up most of the time with their rashness. Henry himself is all right. He’s got the right sort of mystery about him, and though he’s timid, he’s brave when he needs to be. However, the plot revolving around his parents seems pointless (why not just make him an orphan?), and some of the things that are revealed during the course of the book aren’t as smooth or as clear as they could be.
This is the sort of book where I started out really interested and then gradually became less so as things became weirder. I thought things were a bit rushed at the end, and some of the worlds and characters that Wilson introduces seemed out of place. I don’t really have any desire or interest to find out what happens next. I thought the premise was interesting, but I would have much preferred it if it had simply been a “crawl into cupboards and explore other worlds” type of fantasy, rather than a “you let something evil out and now must save everything” type of fantasy. The introduction of that part is where things fell apart in this book, in my opinion.
100 Cupboards has a really good premise, though Wilson doesn’t always execute it as well as he could. Some of the mysteries were interesting, and some of them fell a little flat. The book as a whole is a bit quirky and odd, and doesn’t always hit the right notes. I can see some people really enjoying this book, but for me, I’m not interested in reading any more than I have.
Five older siblings, a few beloved dogs, an endless array of adventures. These are the things that have shaped Lydia’s first eleven years as a Penderwick. And now she’s dancing at the bus stop, waiting for big sister Batty to come home from college. This is a very important dance and a very important wait—the sisters are about to find out that the entire Penderwick family will soon be returning to Arundel, the place where it all began. And better still is the occasion: a good old-fashioned, homemade-by-Penderwicks wedding. Honorary Penderwick Jeffrey is flying in from Germany. Jane is bringing her sewing machine. A dog or two is planning a trot down the aisle. And Lydia is making sure everything comes together—this is Rosalind’s destiny, after all.
The prediction I made in my review of The Penderwicks in Spring that, if there were a last Penderwick novel it would star Lydia, came true. I was super excited when I found out there would be one final Penderwick novel (as a reminder, The Penderwicks series are some of my favorite children’s novels) and reread the first four one right after the other in order to remember everything. And I’m glad I did, as it caused me to be much more prepared for this novel.
The big thing about this novel is that it upset all the Skye/Jeffrey fans. I found this out via Goodreads reviews, but once I read the first four Penderwick novels again (notably, The Penderwicks at Point Mouetteand The Penderwicks in Spring), it became much more obvious to me what Birdsall had planned for Jeffrey (and Batty). And, having reread the novels, I am much less a Skye/Jeffrey fan myself than I was initially. And I’m never sure why fans get so rabid when authors don’t put their favorites together (Louisa May Alcott, cough). It’s clear that Skye loved Jeffrey only as a brother. Let’s respect this fictional character’s decision and move on.
Anyway, moving on, The Penderwicks at Last isn’t nearly as good as The Penderwicks in Spring. It’s fun, yes, and wraps up the storyline, and has the same amount of Penderwick shenanigans as there can be with almost all of them grown up. And I loved the bookending of this book with The Penderwicks—the return to Arundel, Cagney, Mrs. Tifton, and Lydia running into Jack in the tunnel just as Skye ran into Jeffrey. Lydia’s outrage at being a good influence and at being the nice Penderwick was great, but it also makes sense seeing as Iantha is her mother.
But Spring had so much depth and heart and emotion and humor in it that is lacking in At Last. Spring may even have wrapped up the series in a better way, but perhaps I’m biased. The Penderwicks at Last is a good finale, but not a great one.
Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild. At his grandfather’s house three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be—with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox. Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own.
As you might expect from the summary, Pax is one of those animal separation stories that is meant to be heartbreaking and full of “I have to find my animal who’s like my friend/family!” moments, complete with tears and angst. It reminded me a lot of The Fox and the Hound, except if the hound was a boy and there weren’t years between their separation. I’m not a huge fan of animal stories that have animals with their own point of view, but I must admit that Pax has a very tolerable fox point of view, much more focused on accurate animal behavior and language than on making the animals seem like humans.
Pennypacker writes beautifully, so it’s a shame that the story has an obvious, predictable plot as well as some subtle-as-a-brick-in-your-face messages about war. The entire middle portion has Peter talking with Vola for pages and pages while Vola gives the message of the book over and over again in increasingly sentimental, nonsubtle ways. We get it, Pennypacker. War Is Bad. The name “Pax” for the fox told us that. I also noticed that while the perils of war were mentioned over and over (and over and over) again, Pennypacker offer no suggestions about how to bring about peace besides not fighting. It’s the same problem that plagued Margaret Peterson Haddix’s The Always War—the message was encompassed completely into “Don’t fight because fighting is bad and destroys people/nature/animals. If you don’t fight, everyone will get along.” Sure…okay.
Pennypacker’s message also hangs on a poorly developed setting. What war is going on during the book? Where does the story take place? It obviously takes place in the US (coyotes), but where and when? The future? Also, why is it so easy for Peter to get access to a war zone? What kind of explosion severs a fox’s leg from its body so neatly that later the leg of the fox can be found, rather than it being mangled beyond recognition if it’s still there at all? Part of getting absorbed into a good book is knowing where the characters are and what sort of obstacle they’re facing so that it solidifies the story into your mind. Pennypacker clearly just wanted to write an anti-war novel featuring animals, so she didn’t seem to put much thought into setting beyond “let’s have some sort of vague war and the cute animals will distract from the utter nonsense of the setting.”
For a book about cute foxes, Pax was an annoying read, what with its over-the-top antiwar message (with no reasonable alternative given), its unbelievable and vague setting, and its too lengthy middle portion with Vola the Philosopher and Moral Voice. The actual animal point of view was well done, and the writing was beautiful, but the delivery, pace, and mechanics of the world were poorly done and poorly conceived.
Leigh has been Boyd Henshaw’s Number One fan ever since his second grade teacher read aloud Ways to Amuse a Dog. Now in the sixth grade, Leigh lives with his mother and is “the new kid” in school. Troubled by the absence of his father, a cross-country trucker, and angry because a mysterious lunchbag thief steals all the “good stuff” from his lunch, Leigh feels his only friend is Mr. Fridley, the school custodian. Then Leigh’s teacher assigns a project that requires writing letters asking questions of authors. Naturally Leigh chooses to write to Mr. Henshaw, whose surprising answer changes Leigh’s life.
Dear Mr. Henshaw is the story of Leigh Botts, who, through letters to the author Boyd Henshaw and later in diary entries, describes his troubles with writing, his plans to catch a lunchbox thief, and his feelings over his absentee father. It touches on divorce and poverty in the subtle, but noticeable, way of a children’s book, and Cleary does a good job of describing the sort of complicated feelings that can arise in a child when dealing with an absent father.
I liked Dear Mr. Henshaw, but it lacked the depth and memorability that I enjoy in children’s books. It’s the sort of book that I enjoy in the moment, but after I put it down I forget about it. It didn’t grip me or move me in a profound way; it’s not a book that I will look back at with delight. I think it is a book that is, in the moment, good for adults and good for children, but struggles to have much of a lasting impact.
I do think Dear Mr. Henshaw’s portrayal of divorce is one of the better portrayals out there, which is probably why it won a Newbery Medal. Also, the “letters to an author” motif was well done. However, the rest of it was forgettable and in a broad sea of medal winners, Cleary’s book gets lost under the waves.
Disclaimer: Before I Saw You, by Amy K. Sorrells, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Folks are dying fast as the ash trees in the southern Indiana town ravaged by the heroin epidemic where Jaycee Givens lives with nothing more than a thread of hope and a quirky neighbor, Sudie, who rescues injured wildlife. After a tragedy leaves her mother in prison, Jaycee is carrying grief and an unplanned pregnancy she conceals because she trusts no one, including the kind and handsome Gabe, who is new to town and to the local diner where she works. Dividing her time between the diner and Sudie’s place, Jaycee nurses her broken heart among a collection of unlikely friends who are the closest thing to family that she has. Eventually, she realizes she can’t hide her pregnancy any longer, not even from the baby’s abusive father, who is furious when he finds out. The choices she must make for the safety of her unborn child threaten to derail any chance she ever had for hope and redemption. Ultimately, Jaycee must decide whether the truest form of love means hanging on or letting go.
My rating: 4/5
I have been very impressed with the quality of books I have received from Tyndale (barring one or two.) Before I Saw You is poignant and relevant, handling difficult topics well and keeping up a tone that steeps it in Christian literature (as opposed to being a romance with references to Christianity). I was most impressed with Sorrells’ portrayal of teen pregnancy, something that tends to be unfortunately almost demonized in the Christian circle due to its connections with premarital sex. Yet, Sorrells makes clear that though Jaycee is well aware of the mistakes she has made, as are those around her, the life of a child is placed in its rightful position as something beautiful to be celebrated. Hand-in-hand with that comes the heartwarming, heartbreaking choices Jaycee has to make. While occasionally delving too far into sentimentality and flowery language, Sorrells beautifully displays both the difficulty and the necessity of Jaycee’s choices.
Some aspects that mar this work do so only slightly. As I mentioned, the language can get too sentimental at times (although that may very well be because I am not fond of sentimentality), as well as overly flowery and preachy in areas. Gabe is much too perfect, though his struggle to come to terms with Jaycee’s pregnancy helps redeem him a little bit (and it helps that the romance is not central to the plot). The idea that Bryan is never punished for his actions is also unsettling, though perhaps true to reality. And I never could quite buy the character of Sudie, who was slightly too eccentric and thus didn’t seem to fit well, at least to me.
Before I Saw You has some flaws, but its handling of sensitive issues and Sorrells’ obvious desire to cover taboo topics is refreshing, and she shows the difficulty, and the beauty, in a situation like Jaycee’s. I was mostly pleased that Sorrells did a portrayal of teen pregnancy that, frankly, I’ve never really seen, and that by itself made this book stand out to me.
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser, was published in 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
It’s five days before Christmas, and the Vanderbeeker children should be dreaming about sugar plums and presents. But when their curmudgeonly landlord mysteriously refuses to renew their lease, the five siblings must find a way to change his mind before New Year’s. All they have to do is show him how wonderful they are, right? But as every well-intentioned plan goes comically awry, their shenanigans only exasperate their landlord more. What the Vanderbeekers need now is a Christmas miracle. Funny, heartfelt, and as lively as any street in Harlem, this cozy family novel is about the connections we make and the unexpected twists and turns life can take.
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street has all the charm of Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy family or of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks. The Vanderbeeker family stole my heart almost immediately—each character was distinctive and unique, their plight was realistic and their efforts to save their home fit their characters and made sense in both effort and result.
There’s animal-loving Laney, creative Hyacinth, bookworm Oliver, scientist Jesse, and musician Isa (Yan Glaser checks all the hobby and personality boxes), who team up to get Mr. Beiderman, their reclusive landlord, to renew their lease. Along the way, they learn a lot about themselves and a whole lot more about Mr. Beiderman, a story which is honestly one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. Yan Glaser pulls no punches in filling in Mr. Beiderman’s background, but she’s also not afraid to have characters talk through and explain their emotions, something which tends to get overlooked a little in children’s and MG fiction at times.
However, Yan Glaser still has some wrinkles to iron out before I think I could really place this book on level with Birdsall or Enright. Some things were a touch too dramatic: Jesse and Isa’s fight, while meant to instill tension and stall the siblings’ efforts, was executed poorly, in my opinion—not what led to the fight, but rather the moment they actually fought about it—and some of the writing, especially when focusing that tension, felt stilted. I also felt the ending was rushed, since Yan Glaser had to fit a lot into the timeframe she had set for the novel. But those were all little things, really.
I’m really glad I picked up this book, and I’m glad the review on the back of the book—boasting of the Vanderbeekers joining the likes of the Melendy family—didn’t let me down. While Enright and Birdsall are still my reigning “family unit” authors, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, and Yan Glaser, crept up right behind them.
Running. That’s all that Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But never for a track team. Nope, his game has always been ball. But when Ghost impulsively challenges an elite sprinter to a race—and wins—the Olympic medalist track coach sees he has something: crazy natural talent. Thing is, Ghost has something else: a lot of anger, and a past that he tries to outrun. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed and meld with the team, or will his past finally catch up to him?
Ghost is a book I wasn’t sure I would enjoy, but ended up loving. Ghost has a great voice as the first-person narrator, and it’s easy to get swept up in the book. It’s a fast read, but the pacing is good and the balance of light and dark is perfect: there’s angst, but there’s enough healing and light-heartedness to cut through it.
Ghost is the main character, but it’s Coach who’s the real star of the show: he pretty much becomes Ghost’s much-needed father-figure, helping him own up to his mistakes, but also showing compassion when necessary. He’s also not afraid to share weakness or past hardships, which makes him the best sort of adult character. Ghost himself, as I said, has a great voice, and everything he does is completely believable, to the point where I’m so caught up that I can’t even get annoyed at the dumb teenage things he does sometimes. And I love how all the chapter titles mention world records until the last one, to especially highlight how important it is.
Speaking of the last chapter, I do wish that there had been more resolution to the ending. And I know that it’s not really important who won the race, and that the point is that Ghost got there and he’s ready to put the past behind him, but…I kinda wanted to see the race unfold! That’s pretty much my only complaint about the novel: the ending could have been better, in my opinion.
Ghost stars an endearing protagonist, a fantastic adult figure in Coach, and several other fleshed-out side characters (who, I believe, will star in their own books). It’s a fast-paced, fast-read of a book and it’s mostly perfect, except for the ending. Still, I’m ready and willing for the next books to fall into my lap.
Disclaimer: First Impressions, by Debra White Smith, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
In an attempt to get to know the people of London, Texas—the small town that lawyer Eddi Boswick now class home—she tries out for a local theater group’s production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She’s thrilled to get the role of lively Elizabeth Bennet…until she meets the arrogant—and eligible—rancher playing her leading man. Dave Davidson chose London, Texas, as the perfect place to live under the radar. Here, no one knows his past, and he can live a quiet, peaceful life with his elderly aunt, who also happens to own the local theater. Dave doesn’t even tryout for the play, but suddenly he is thrust into the role of Mr. Darcy and forced to spend the entire summer with Eddi, who clearly despises him. Sparks fly every time Eddi and Dave meet, whether on the stage or off. But when Eddi discovers Dave’s secret, she has to admit there might be more to him than she thought. Maybe even enough to change her mind…and win her heart.
I was excited when I found out this book was a Pride & Prejudice retelling. I figured I would enjoy it even if it turned out like many of the other mediocre romances I’ve read. I did get a bit of a scare when I reached the second chapter and had a “who thought this way of writing was a good idea?” moment when Smith described a tornado as a “beast,” a “devil,” a “demon,” a “gyrating monster,” a “funnel,” a “ghastly specter,” and, my personal favorite, a “capricious adolescent,” all in the span of three pages. Trust me…I almost stopped reading then and there.
However, I shouldered on, and I’m glad I did. Smith manages to keep a lot of the main characterization of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy and transfers them to her modern characters, Eddi and Dave. I don’t think she quite understands Darcy, but at least her presentation was better than the 2005 Kiera Knightley “shy romantic soul” movie interpretation. A lot of the same issues were addressed, at least in terms of their relationship, and in that regard I quite enjoyed it.
My main quibble was simply the shape of the retelling itself, especially how Smith chose to reinterpret some of the elements. It’s difficult to retell a Regency novel in a modern world, so I can say that Smith did a good job trying to find an equal equivalent to things that happen in the book (though none have done it better than “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” in my opinion). I do think she takes it a bit too far, though, especially in terms of Linda, this story’s Lydia. The Lydia of Pride & Prejudice is naïve and silly, but not worldly. I suppose the closest modern interpretation would be a sort of wild party girl, as is portrayed here, but I still think Smith could have done something a little better than what she does with the Lydia plotline. And I get that Christian novels love redemption stories, but redeeming Wickham (or this story’s Wickham, anyway) was too much. I did like the changing of Georgiana to a boy, though, and the way Smith modernized that event.
Some of the other elements were a little all over the place, such as the Chari/Charlotte and and Conner/Mr. Collins plotline, which seemed thrown in purely for the sake of the retelling as opposed to the plot. To be honest, they could have been cut out completely with nothing lost at all. I also was thrown by the early Catharine de Bourge/Davidson’s aunt scene, and I felt the effect was ruined because of it.
Basically, I enjoyed the main plotline of First Impressions, the barebones Pride & Prejudice romance retelling, but I had more serious problems with the writing and the side characters, as well as some of the ways Smith chose to retell and reinterpret the original. I liked it, but if I want a good Pride & Prejudice retelling, this won’t be the book I turn to.
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.