The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart, was published in 2007 by Little, Brown and Company.
‘Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?’ When this peculiar ad appears in the newspaper, dozens of children enroll to take a series of mysterious, mind-bending tests. (And you, dear reader, can test your wits right alongside them.) But in the end just four very special children will succeed. Their challenge: to go on a secret mission that only the most intelligent and resourceful children could complete. To accomplish it they will have to go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where the only rule is that there are no rules. As our heroes face physical and mental trials beyond their wildest imaginations, they have no choice but to turn to each other for support. But with their newfound friendship at stake, will they be able to pass the most important test of all?
I read, a long time ago, the sequel to The Mysterious Benedict Society. I don’t remember anything about it; I don’t even remember if I finished it or not after I discovered it wasn’t the first book. Now, I’ve finally read the original book, after hearing quite a lot of praise about it from several people.
I must say, though, that I was a little underwhelmed. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it—I enjoyed it immensely at the beginning, when there were lots of puzzles and riddles and general quirkiness. Then, when the book got more serious and stranger, I found myself feeling considerably more lukewarm about it.
The problem, to me, is that The Mysterious Benedict Society starts out as an odd, but fun book where children solve riddles and become part of a group that will then utilize their individual strengths to do better things. Then, while still promoting the same thing (with less riddles), a convoluted, strange plot develops and the book takes an entirely different turn into something odd, but not fun, becoming a little more tedious and a little less enjoyable.
Maybe the problem is that Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance spend too much time at the school before things get moving. Maybe the problem was with the entire concept of “Messengers,” “Executives,” and the strange “Whisperer.” Maybe I’m finding it more difficult to take seriously a book that, to me, is uneven in tone and where the one thing that I enjoyed at the beginning—the riddles—is pushed to the side for a convoluted plot about mind-control.
I did enjoy the puzzles enough in The Mysterious Benedict Society to perhaps pick up the sequel and see how much I remember from that long-ago read. However, the book was underwhelming enough that I may simply forget all about it.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Realistic (I suppose), Middle Grade
After a few more pages of questions, all of which Reynie felt confident he had answered correctly, he arrived at the test’s final question: “Are you brave?” Just reading the words quickened Reynie’s heart. Was he brave? Bravery had never been required of him, so how could he tell? Miss Perumal would say he was: she would point out how cheerful he tried to be despite feeling lonely, how patiently he withstood the teasing of other children, and how he was always eager for a challenge. But these things only showed that he was good-natured, polite, and very often bored. Did they really show that he was brave? He didn’t think so. Finally he gave up trying to decide and simply wrote, “I hope so.”
Disclaimer: Maybe It’s You, by Candace Calvert, was provided by Tyndale House. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Nurse Sloane Ferrell escaped her risky past—new name, zip code, job, and a fresh start. She’s finally safe, if she avoids a paper trail and doesn’t let people get too close. Like the hospital’s too-smooth marketing man with his relentless campaign to plaster one “lucky” employee’s face on freeway billboards. Micah Prescott’s goal is to improve the Hope hospital image, but his role as a volunteer crisis responder is closer to his heart. The selfless work helps fill a void in his life left by family tragedy. So does a tentative new relationship with the compassionate, beautiful, and elusive Sloane Ferrell. Then a string of brutal crimes makes headlines, summons responders…and exposes disturbing details of Sloane’s past. Can hope spring from crisis?
My rating: 3/5
Apparently there are two books previous to Maybe It’s You, but they’re not necessary to read beforehand—which is good because I didn’t. I’m assuming, based on what I know about the first two books and what was revealed in this one, that Sloane appears as a minor character in them, but I don’t know for sure. And Calvert does enough in terms of character development that any previous development given isn’t necessary to Sloane’s growth and development in this book.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Maybe It’s You—possibly some cheesy book version of a soap opera, or something written specifically for fans of Grey’s Anatomy or something—but the plot pleasantly surprised me. There was intrigue, criminal behavior, and a much more dark and traumatic backstory than I was expecting. It’s also well-written and compelling, which is good because even though the book as a whole is not something I would usually pick up or read, I found it interesting and wanted to finish it.
However, because the book is not the sort of thing I would usually pick up or read, I can’t really gush about it or anything. Like I said, it was mildly intriguing, well-written, and more interesting than I thought it would be. Sloane had good character development and even Micah gets some backstory to make him more interesting than the usual male romantic interest. The message aspect of it was good and there was a good emphasis on things like letting go of the past, moving on from past hurt, and forgiving others.
But Maybe It’s You is pretty forgettable, at least for me. There’s nothing in it to make me want to spread the word about it, although perhaps it might lead me to keep an eye on the author if Calvert ever writes anything except medical dramas. It was good, but not great. It was interesting, but not that sort of mesmerizing interest that makes you put the book down and go “Oh, that was good. I want to think about this a lot.” I suppose the highest praise I have for the book is that it’s not as bad as I thought it would be and it’s better than I gave it credit for.
Warnings: Sexual abuse, prostitution, alcohol abuse, violence, death.
Disclaimer: The Sisters of Sugarcreek, by Cathy Liggett, was provided by Tyndale House. I received a free copy. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Lydia Gruber, a young Amish widow, faces an uncertain future. Without support or skills, how will she survive? With the loss of her beloved aunt, Jessica Holtz inherits Rose’s Knit One Quilt Too Cottage. Though determined to keep the sop open, she doesn’t know the first thing about knitting and quilting and begins to see her aunt’s dream slip through her fingers. Liz Cannon lost not only her dear friend Rose but her partner in the Secret Stitches Society—dedicated to delivering anonymous gifts of hope to troubled folks. She and Jessica decided to keep the society going, choosing Lydia for their first mission. The three women form an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of tragedy. As they walk together though triumph and heartbreak—through grief and new chances at love—they begin to discover that with friends by your side, a stitch of hope can be found anywhere.
My rating: 2/5
The Sisters of Sugarcreek is good in places, with interesting characters, realistic conflicts, and slightly-too-heavy-handed messages poking their heads out from plodding scenes, predictable romance, and a particularly annoying writing style. It dwells too long on angst and romance and not long enough on the deeper parts of the novel, such as Lydia’s uncertainty. To be honest, if Lydia had been the only main character, and thus the only viewpoint character, in the book, I might have enjoyed it a lot better.
Lydia’s story was, to me, the most interesting, but it often was set aside for Jessica’s boring and predictable romantic angst—I am heartily sick of the “best friend from high school was The One but she hasn’t seen him in years and now he’s back and she doesn’t know what to do because she still likes him but she doesn’t want to tell him so they dance around the subject forever while she keeps thinking about how perfect he is” trope—and Liz’s less interesting side plot. Also, I definitely think the secret behind Lydia’s husband was dealt with too quickly and brushed aside almost immediately. Or perhaps, since Lydia was my favorite, I just wanted more time spent with her and less time with the more unoriginal characters of Jessica and Liz and their plots.
Also, I don’t know why any editor would let an author get away with this, but seriously, Cathy Liggett—dependent clauses are called “dependent” for a reason. Sisters of Sugarcreek was littered with sentence fragments used for description purposes and/or emphasis, but all it accomplished was break up the writing and make it choppy and disjointed. All it emphasized was that Liggett needs a copy of The Elements of Style, or maybe stop relaying on the breaking up of sentences to do her emphasizing for her.
Overall, The Sisters of Sugarcreek is good only for Lydia’s sadly underdeveloped storyline, which communicates so much about uncertainty and growing out of that into confidence. However, Jessica and Liz cut into Lydia’s story with generic, predictable plots of their own, with love interests too perfect for me to take seriously (especially Derek; Daniel at least wobbles at the end for a decent “not perfect” finish) and slightly melodramatic conversations and problems. Add to that the author’s propensity for using fragments for descriptive purposes, and for most of the book I was looking forward for it to be over.
The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley, was published in 1941 by Random House.
Published originally in 1941, this book is about a young boy, Alec Ramsay who finds a wild black stallion at a small Arabian port on the Red Sea. Between the black stallion and young boy, a strange understanding grew that you lead them through untold dangers as they journeyed to America. Nor could Alec understand that his adventures with the black stallion would capture the interest of an entire nation.
I attribute my love for horse racing when I was younger (that still lingers slightly today) completely to The Black Stallion and its sequels. I think the only series on horse racing I read more was Joanna Campbell’s Thoroughbred series. The Black Stallion is equal parts shipwreck story, animal-bonding story, and horse racing guide. It might not be as monumental or memorable as Black Beauty or other famous horse books, but this book will always hold a near and dear place in my heart.
The Black Stallion is the reason I was so moved by Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. That “wild horse that only one person can tame” aspect resonated with me when I read The Black Stallion when I was young, and it resonated again reading Stiefvater’s work. I’m not going to compare them beyond that, but they’re both special to me for that reason.
Walter Farley may not be the best writer, and stereotypes abound in the areas Farley clearly is not familiar with, but The Black Stallion is a dear book from my childhood, and I love it for that reason—and for many of its sequels, which are even more informative about horse racing and at times even more exciting and suspenseful than the original shipwreck story (and then there are the last couple of books, but we won’t talk about those). It’s not the best horse story, but it holds a special place in my heart all the same.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Realistic, Children’s
That night Alex lay wide awake, his body aching with pain, but his heart pounding with excitement. He had ridden the Black! He had conquered this wild, unbroken stallion with kindness. He felt sure that from that day on the Black was his—his alone! But for what—would they ever be rescued? Would he ever see his home again?
Springtime is finally arriving on Gardam Street, and with it comes all the joyful chaos of the Penderwicks. The brood has grown to six with the addition of Lydia, the new youngest sibling, and there are surprises in store for all. Some surprises are just wonderful, like neighbor Nick Geiger coming home from war. And some are ridiculous, like Batty’s new dog-walking business, which has resulted in her spending an inordinate amount of time with Duchess, a very fat dachshund, and Cilantro, a wrinkled shar-pei with a bark like a lovelorn tuba. Batty is saving up her dog-walking money for an extra-special surprise for her family, which she plans to present on her upcoming birthday. The timing is perfect: Rosalind will be home from college, Skye and Jane will put their bothersome teenage worries aside to celebrate, and Jeffrey, honorary Penderwick and Batty’s musical mentore, will be visiting from Boston. But when an unwelcome surprise arrives, the best-laid plans fall apart. Filled with all the heart, hilarity, and charm that have come to define this beloved clan, The Penderwicks in Spring is about fun and family and friends (and dogs), and what happens when you bring what’s hidden into the bright light of the spring sun.
Full disclosure: I cried shamelessly while reading this book.
Birdsall did the absolute best thing for the Penderwicks series when she decided to make The Penderwicks in Spring take place several years after The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. We’ve had our Rosalind, Jane, and Skye stories—now it’s time for Batty to take the limelight, and oh, boy, does she. Every single aspect of this book—from the sorrow and angst of Batty’s hidden worries and guilt to the fun and humorous interactions between the characters—was perfect.
To be honest, this book left me a little speechless, and even trying to find something to say beyond “perfection” is a struggle at the moment. I love how the exact timeframe the books take place in is never narrowed down. It’s definitely modern, yet the kids don’t have cellphones, don’t really use computers, and there is no mention of video games or television. There is a mention of a war but it’s never called by any name. It might very well take place in the 80s, but what makes this book (and the others) so great is that it doesn’t matter what decade they take place in because the heart of the books reach beyond that.
The Penderwicks in Spring reads very much like a last book to me. There’s a decisive finality to it, even more so than the previous books. The past is finally cleared, the way forward for the Penderwicks is apparent (and it will end with Skye/Jeffrey, thus I declare), and, to be honest, I doubt another Penderwick book could ever surpass the pleasure and emotion I experienced while reading this one. If Birdsall decides to write another book (about Lydia, maybe?), then I will gladly snatch it up and read it—yet TPS is such a perfect way to end the series that I might feel disappointed if another book did get published.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Realistic, Children’s
And then it happened—her sprite tried to sing. Batty clapped her hand over her mouth and hoped Ben hadn’t noticed.
He’d noticed. “What was that sound?”
“What sound?” is what Batty said, except that it sounded like whu sohn because her hand was still over her mouth.
“That sound you just made.”
“Maybe your stomach was growling.”
He stared at her suspiciously. His stomach hadn’t’ growled. “There it goes again!”
“Maybe it’s my stomach!”
She started to push him toward the door, but he resisted. “If it’s your stomach, why is your hand over your mouth?”
Disclaimer: Larger-Than-Life Lara, by Dandi Daley Mackall, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
‘This isn’t about me. The story, I mean. So already you got a reason to hang it up. At least htat’s what Mrs. Smith, my teachers, says.’ But the story is about ten-year-old Laney Grafton and the new girl in her class—Lara Phelps—whom everyone bullies from the minute she shows up. But instead of acting the way a bullied kid normally acts, this new girl returns kindness for a meanness that intensifies—until nobody remains unchanged, not even the reader.
My rating: 4/5
Dandi Daley Mackall wrote some of my favorite book series growing up: Winnie the Horse Gentler and Horsefeathers, back in the day when stories about horses composed 80% of my reading. Seeing another book of hers pop up on the Tyndale Blog Network intrigued me, even if this book is technically a republication (Larger-Than-Life Lara was originally published 10 years ago, in 2006).
Larger-Than-Life Lara is a short, but wholesome, book. Laney is a wonderful protagonist, and the hints at her home life never reveal too much or hide too little. Her voice is funny and the crafting of the story is smart—as a teacher, I found myself reading and thinking, “This is a perfect book to read to help explain story elements.”
It’s also a perfect book to discuss with a younger audience. Lara’s actions, Laney’s feelings, and the entire attitudes and behaviors of the class, are rich for discussion. The story is poignant, sweet, and heartbreaking in turns, and it’s just as much about Laney as it is about Lara and her effect on the fourth-grade class.
My favorite aspect of the book, though, is that Larger-Than-Life Lara communicates so much of the Christian message without even mentioning God once. Lara’s actions are beautifully Christ-like, with her capacity to forgive, her willingness to take fault when she herself did nothing, and the transforming effect her actions have on her classmates. There’s so much there for young readers to think and talk about. Larger-Than-Life Lara was a joy to read, and it’s nice to see that even if the works I read by Mackall as a child have worn old over the years, there are still some of her works that delight me.
Warnings: Alcohol abuse, hints at a bad home life, bullying.
When summer comes around, it’s off to the beach for Rosalind…and off to Maine with Aunt Claire for the rest of the Penderwick girls, as well as their old friend Jeffrey. That leaves Skye as OAP (oldest available Penderwick)—a terrifying notion for all, but for Skye especially. Things look good as they settle into their cozy cottage, with a rocky shore, enthusiastic seagulls, a just-right corner store, and a charming next-door neighbor. But can Skye hold it together long enough to figure out Rosalind’s directions about not letting Batty explode? Will Jane’s Love Survey come to a tragic conclusion after she meets the alluring Dominic? Is Batty—contrary to all accepted wisdom—the only Penderwick capable of carrying a tune? And will Jeffrey be able to keep peace between the girls…these girls who are his second, and most heartfelt, family?
I was a little disappointed with The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, but I am happy to say that The Penderwicks at Point Mouette was lovely, a return to the joy and heartfelt times captured in the first book. Point Mouette also did wonders to improve upon Skye, who I didn’t particularly like as much as the other girls in the first two books, but who really blossoms in this one (as being the OAP would do.)
Jane continues to be the girl after my own heart, and one paragraph of her thoughts perfectly encapsulates my entire pre-teen and teenage years. I do like how each Penderwick sister has their own distinct voice, as sometimes families in books can get muddled together until one sibling is virtually the same as the next. But Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty are so distinctly individual, yet also have a great unity that shines in the little family jokes and the heartwarming moments—and boy, were there plenty of those.
My one, teeny, tiny quibble is that the plot is a little convenient—but at the same time, it created such heartfelt and poignant moments that even while I was thinking, “What are the odds?” I was also sniffling and tearing up and too engrossed in the moment to care much. And that’s the best sort of thing an author can do when the plot is convenient: suck the reader in so deeply that he or she no longer cares about things like mechanics and simply loves the story at the heart of it all.
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is a lovely, beautiful book about the joys and stresses of summer vacation, all captured with near-perfect voice and unforgettable characters. These books make me happy to read them, and I come away from them with a smile on my face. I am very, very pleased that I decided to pick up Jeanne Birdsall’s books.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Realistic, Children’s
“Blow up,” she read. “I wonder what that means. Maybe that Batty could blow up, with hives or something?”
“We’re sure to find out, since we can’t read what we’re supposed to do or not do about it! This is a nightmare. What was everyone thinking, Jane? I make a terrible OAP.”
“Daddy thinks you’ll grow into it. I heard him tell Iantha so.”
Skye looked like she’d been thrown a lifeline. “He really said that?”
“Yes, he really did.” Jane was telling the truth—she had heard him say that. She’d also heard him say he wasn’t sure exactly when Skye would grow into it. But Skye didn’t need to hear that part.
Disclaimer: Another Day, Another Dali, by Sandra Orchard, was provided by Revell. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
When FBI Special Agent Serena Jones takes on the case of a forged Dali painting as a favor to her grandmother, she assumes it will be a typical investigation. Hopefully collaring the thief will also mean finally measuring up in her grandmother’s eyes. But the deeper she delves into the forgery and the suspects surrounding it, the less typical it becomes. The Dali isn’t the only painting that’s fallen prey to the forgery-replacing thief, raising the possibility of a sophisticated theft ring—one with links to dirty cops, an spring young artist, and the unsolved murder of Serena’s grandfather. To make matters worse, someone connected to the forgeries seems to be determined to stop Serena’s investigation—no matter the cost.
I think overall I had a better time with Another Day, Another Dali than with the previous book, A Fool & His Monet.Serena was more competent in this book, although at times she did have some really stupid moments (that she was later yelled at for doing, so at least it was acknowledged that it was stupid). The plot was complicated enough that the mystery didn’t feel swept aside for the humor, although it was a little too complicated at times—occasionally I would forget who was who and what they did and how they connected to each other.
The humor was all right, for the most part, but at times it felt distinctly out of place. Orchard still has some work to do to get the balance of suspense and humor just right, without making her protagonist seem ill-suited for her job in the process.
There were a few areas, too, where things fell a little flat—there were a few lines of poorly written dialogue and I was continuously confused about how Aunt Martha could do half the things she did, and why she kept showing up at all. But, overall, I did enjoy Another Day, Another Dali, and Serena is growing on me, even if at times she’s a little stupid and a little too “comic relief character.”
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Tangled Webs, by Irene Hannon, from the publisher Revell. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
After a disastrous Middle East mission ends his six-year Army Ranger career, Finn McGregor needs some downtime. A peaceful month in the woods sounds like the perfect way to decompress. But peace isn’t on the agenda once he crosses paths with publishing executive Dana Lewis, a neighbor who is nursing wounds of her own. Someone seems bent on disrupting her stay in the lakeside cabin she inherited from her grandfather. As Finn and Dana work together to discover who is behind the disquieting pranks, the incidents begin to take on a menacing tone. And when it becomes apparent Dana’s foe may have deadly intent, Finn finds himself back in the thick of the action—ready or not.
Tangled Webs is a decent suspense novel, though the suspense is overshadowed by the mediocre romance. Really, this book would have been fine as a suspense novel without the predictable, boring romance—perhaps even better.
Although, the romance might have been better if Dana and Finn had been more interesting characters. But I was far more interested in the police chief than in them, and sadly, he wasn’t featured as much as those two. I found him to be an interesting character and somewhat sympathetic in that you understand why he’s doing what he’s doing and yet want to slap him over the head and wonder why he’s being so stupid. He’s relatable, which is more than I can say for cardboard Dana and Finn, Stock Characters 1 and 2, cut straight from the magazine.
Pointless romance aside, as I mentioned, the suspense was actually quite good and the whole concept of gold hiding in a lake was pretty interesting. I wish there had been a scene where everyone reads the letter the police chief left behind, but instead it’s just casually thrown out at the end—and there’s also no mention of the chief’s wife, which I found disappointing since that’s how the whole thing got started. So, overall, though the concept was good, the entire thing fell flat for me. And I’d love to read something more original than the romance portrayed in Tangled Webs, and done with more original characters. Maybe try a different magazine, Hannon.
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, by Jeanne Birdsall, was published in 2008 by Alfred A Knopf. It is the sequel to The Penderwicks.
The Penderwick sisters are home on Gardam Street and ready for an adventure! But the adventure they get isn’t quite what they had in mind. Mr. Penderwick’s sister has decided it’s time for him to start dating—and the girls know that can only mean one thing: disaster. Enter the Save-Daddy Plan—a plot so brilliant, so bold, so funny, that only the Penderwick girls could have come up with it. It’s high jinks, big laughs, and loads of family warmth as the Penderwicks triumphantly return.
I didn’t like The Penderwicks on Gardam Street quite as much as I liked The Penderwicks, although there were certainly bright moments throughout the book that I thought were wonderful. I would have liked it a little bit better if it hadn’t used an obvious, cliché “single dad starts dating again and then falls in love with the next-door neighbor” plot and if the ending dialogue hadn’t been so cheesy, but even with that included, it was still a delightful read for the most part.
Some parts of it did drag, though, and I found some parts unnecessary to the book overall. I’m not sure if it was the absence of Jeffrey or the absence of summer-time joy, but Gardam Street lacks some charm and was tedious to read—although the inclusion of characters like Tommy and Nick and some of the other oddball moments helped to break up that tedious. In fact, I actually preferred the book when it wasn’t focusing so much on “real life issues” and was simply having a good time with some maybe-not-quite-realistic scenarios.
So, yes, while I did find The Penderwicks on Gardam Street to be a step down from The Penderwicks, I did still enjoy myself for the most part, though again I found the book a tad boring in places. But the crowning moment of the novel for me was Jane’s play, which was exactly the sort of sensationalized ham that a ten-year-old would write—oh, and the elaborate plot to steal their dad’s car battery. More of that, please.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Realistic, Children’s
“How did it go?”
“It was fine, I guess.”
“Fine like he liked her?”
“No, fine like he didn’t, thank goodness. Tommy, I can’t help thinking about Anna’s father, and about that boy we met this summer—”
Tommy interrupted. “Cagney.”
“What?” Rosalind hadn’t meant Cagney. And now she realized that she’d never gotten around to telling Aunt Claire about him—and love—and heartache. All of that seemed so long ago now.
“Cagney the gardener, who was older than you and so cute, blah, blah, blah.”
“What do you mean, blah, blah, blah? I’ve barely mentioned him to you.”