Daughter of the Mountains by Louise Rankin

Daughter of the Mountains, by Louise Rankin, was published in 1948 by Viking.

Rating: 2/5

Daughter of the Mountains lost the Newbery Medal to King of the Wind, and now that I’ve typed that out, I realize just how similar the books are in terms of style. Perhaps a sign of the times. Daughter of the Mountains is about Momo, who, after her dog is stolen from her, sets out to find him again, a journey which takes her across the mountains of Tibet down into India. As far as accuracy of representation goes, I honestly have no idea (though at the beginning Rankin seems to describe them as ignorant and superstitious, by the end that image has completely vanished for a more favorable one), but Rankin at least seemed to know what she was talking about in describing dress, manner, and customs of the people. Momo constantly prays to Tara, a Buddhist goddess/bodhisittva (there’s also a Hindu goddess of the same name), and there is even, perhaps, a mention of the arrival of Christianity into India, though I could be mistaken.

The reason I rated the book so low is because by the end, I was more than a little tired of the extravagant, flowery way Rankin wrote, to the point where even her characters spoke embellishingly, even the eight-to-ten-year-old girl who is the main character. In addition, Momo’s journey is almost too perfect—though there are several points where she is in some danger, and many where she is lost, everything always ends up aligning perfectly for her, down to the British military leader/governor (or something) who stumbles upon her crying and for some reason decides to address the poor little mountain girl and buy her a train ticket. And the fulsome acceptance and praise heaped upon her at the end by the British couple was far, far too much. In fact, if I must criticize Rankin for her description of India at the time, it’s the complete lack of tension and antagonism that existed in that time, right before British rule ended in India. A children’s book, yes, but a very, very romanticized one.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

The Lioness and Her Knight by Gerald Morris

The Lioness and Her Knight, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight.

Rating: 3/5

The Lioness and Her Knight is, I think, the longest of Morris’s books so far, retelling Chretien de Troyes’ The Knight of the Lion. It is, perhaps, too long, with the characters spending too much time in one place, but it is stuffed full of events. The protagonist is Lynet and Gaheris’s (from The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf) daughter, Luneta, who sets out on her own adventure with the fool Rhience and her cousin Ywain. The title has a double meaning: there is a literal lioness with a knight, but Luneta is also a figurative lioness.

The protagonist being the child of the main character in another book earlier in the series does raise the question of “Just how old are these characters, and is that realistic to the time period?” but I’m sure Morris didn’t intend for us to think so deeply on that subject. Instead, he uses old characters as a beacon of familiarity, anchoring the book in his established world even as he introduces new characters.

Like I said, the plot is long, and entirely too long is spent on Luneta in Laudine’s castle. There’s also some rather odd side adventures that happen that are important to the plot, but add to the length of the book, slowing the pace. There is, however, fabulous character development on all sides, with the exception of Rhience, who remains enigmatic and the source of dry wit throughout the book.

The length of the book is slightly made up by the fantastic ending, which legitimately made me laugh out loud at several points (a rarity even with humorous books). While Morris has similar humor throughout the books, making things more predictable with each entry, he is at the top of his game in the last 30 or so pages.

The Lioness and Her Knight was too long, though I can’t really say what could have been cut or trimmed since a lot of what happened functioned as important to the plot or to the development of the characters. I struggled with the pacing and the length of time spent in certain places, though by the end of the book things started picking up more. Still a consistently good entry, but not my favorite.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

A Dream Within a Dream by Mike Nappa and Melissa Kosci

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of A Dream within a Dream, by Mike Nappa and Melissa Kosci, from Revell. All opinions are my own.

My rating: 4/5

I enjoyed the first two Coffey & Hill books (Annabel Lee and The Raven) by Mike Nappa, and the same holds true for A Dream within a Dream. There’s suspense, mystery, action, and even a fun puzzle to locate some stolen art. Though I couldn’t really remember much of what happened in the first two books, it’s not really necessary—enough is explained so that you can get the jist of previous events in order to understand why things are happening.

My same criticisms of the first two books stand, which is the overuse of specific car and gun brands. However, I didn’t really notice it much in this book, so I’ve either gotten used to it or it fit more naturally in the story this time around. I did notice, however, that Nappa (and Kosci—it’s interesting that this book has a co-author while the others don’t) really overused a certain kind of writing style, where something happened at the end of one chapter and the next starts after that event, with the character having a flashback to the resolution. That happened one too many times and it got annoying after a while.

Trudi and Samuel got some interesting character development in this book. I like them both when they’re doing things together, but separate, I found myself liking Trudi more than Samuel. Samuel was just a little too smooth and even cocky in areas. Trudi seemed much more realistic and relatable. Plus, Trudi had the bonus of having Eula and Dream with her, who were great side characters, Dream especially. Overall the characterization was really good and the ending made complete sense in the narrative, closing the book with a sense of finality, but also a sense of a thread that could potentially result in another sequel. 

I really struggled to connect all the plot threads together, but the characters (minus Samuel) were interesting enough that even though I finished the book a little bit confused as to the sequence of events and other plot-related things, I still enjoyed it. Like I said, Trudi, Eula, and Dream really made this book shine. Overall, A Dream Within a Dream was an enjoyable, suspenseful mystery/spy novel with some great characters, and though the plot was dense and some of the stylistic choices I didn’t particularly like, I still ended up barely able to put it down.

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Realistic, Mystery, Christian

Epic by Conor Kostick

Epic, by Conor Kostick, was published in 2004 by Viking.

Rating: 2/5

For some reason I felt like reading books about video games, so a trip to the library rewarded me with Rush (which I hated) and Epic, which reads much more like fantasy than the former and is much more clearly inspired by MMOs and tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons.

Epic takes place in a post-apocalyptic (maybe? It’s not abundantly clear. All we know is that it’s called “New Earth” and Erik and the rest live in a Scandinavian area) Earth where issues and conflicts in real life are resolved in the fantasy game world of Epic. Honestly, I’m not really sure what people do on this New Earth in terms of government, jobs, or anything; there’s mentions of farming, solar panels, some sort of exile jail, and a university, but other than that, Erik and his friends basically have nothing to do except play Epic.

The writing is awkward in many places, full of baffling details, flowery and Victorian descriptions, and blindingly obvious summations. At one point Kostick literally calls two of his characters “protagonists,” as in “the two protagonists walked down the street.” Excessive amounts of detail are poured into describing Epic, with great emphasis placed on how different Erik’s character is from the “gray colorless polygons” of everyone else’s (gray, colorless, polygons are all words used over and over to describe other characters). It reads very much like a tabletop game and much less like a novel.

The plot is understandable insofar as motivation and action go, though so little is revealed about New Earth that the reader just gets swept along in the characters’ emotions without really knowing the reason why. Why was Harald exiled, why does it matter, where is he, what’s the deal with this government? Who knows? Now read more about this cool video game world.

It’s also incredibly difficult to swallow that a world could ban violence so effectively that even one of the villains blanches at the thought of doing anything outside of the game. And one has to wonder with the ending of the book if such a world could even sustain itself anymore without its largest “get out your violence in a way that won’t affect real people” foundation, or without any sort of currency, apparently, or even jobs.

If you like tabletop games (and the way they’re written) and you don’t mind loose worldbuilding, you’d probably enjoy Epic. There’s apparently a sequel or two, as well. I didn’t enjoy it nearly enough to pick up the others, however.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

Five Children and It, by E(dith). Nesbit, was first published in 1902. I read the 1999 version with full color illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky.

Rating: 3/5

C. S. Lewis was a huge fan of Edith Nesbit’s, and I can tell from reading this book just how much she inspired him in his own writings. Now, I’ve read a Nesbit book before—two actually, The Enchanted Castle and The Railway Children. However, this book was published five years before the other two, which might explain the slight difference in narrator voice. I don’t remember the narrator in either of the latter two books being quite so pronounced as in Five Children and It.

Anyway, the book is about five children (four, really—the fifth is a baby and doesn’t feature quite as much), who discover “it” in a sandpit. “It” is a Psammead, a Sand-Fairy, who grants them wishes. This book clearly influenced Edward Eager’s Half Magic, which is very similar. The children purposefully, and occasionally accidentally, wish for things that of course never turn out quite the way they want. Pounds and pounds of money? Too bad, you can’t spend any of it because no one will accept it. Wings? Well, better hope you make it back before the wish wears off and you’re stuck at the top of a tower with no way down. Baby brother is annoying, so you wish people wanted him around so you could go off and play? Now you have to worry about people kidnapping him right from your arms.

While the premise of the book is easily translatable across years and cultures (Nesbit was British), much of the language and slang is not. The children all have nicknames and the names are used interchangeably, which could be very confusing; there’s tons of British terms scattered throughout the book; and in one excruciatingly did-not-age-well chapter, the children dress up like “Red Indians” to try to prevent some Indians they had wished into existence from scalping them to death.

It’s a good book, and there are many relevant themes and messages that the children learn. However, unless the reader was particularly interested in such a story and could get past the British terminology (fans of Lewis would probably like this book a lot), I can’t see it appealing much to those who would simply casually pick it up. It is, I think, just a little too odd.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Rush by Eve Silver

Rush, by Eve Silver, was published in 2013 by Katherine Tegen.

Rating: 1/5

This book was…bad. I’m not even going to try to sugarcoat it. I actually almost stopped reading it two chapters in (and then continuously thought about stopping), but I decided to keep going so I could write a full review.

So, the premise of this book is that there’s an alien race bent on ruling the world, and in order to defeat them, there’s this Committee (which is like some sort of computer…?) who are pulling people into this “lobby” and making them play a “game” to kill the aliens; any injury they get in the game is magically healed upon their return, unless they die.

If they die in the game, they die for real.

And then there’s time travel or something.

Oh, and there’s a mysterious bad boy who the main character falls in love with who also seems to be slightly manipulative in places? So, that’s a healthy relationship. And let’s not forget the really weird descriptions, like “My disappointment was chalky and bitter, like I had just chewed an aspirin.” And the flagrant misuse of the word “ambivalent.”

The plot is incoherent and makes little sense. There’s a lot of “magic hand-wavey” explanation for the lobby, the game, and the mysterious people running the game. Basically, it’s the way it is and there’s no explanation. There’s very little given about the aliens except for “they want to take over the world.” Jackson, the mysterious boy love interest, smirks and sulks and muscled physique’s his way into Miki’s heart, despite how much she hates him at the beginning. Miki herself turns from “I have no idea what’s going on and I’ll survive by sheer luck” in the first battle to “I can command my team no problem despite having no experience” in the third.

And then there are some side characters, and I don’t remember anything about them.

So, that’s Rush. A mess of bad writing, clunky plot, forgettable characters, and a questionable romance.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Kissing

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Realistic

Anastasia by Carolyn Meyer

Anastasia, the Last Grand Duchess, by Carolyn Meyer, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Most people are likely aware of Anastasia and the Romanov family from the animated movie Anastasia (not a Disney film, as many people think, but 20th Century Fox [which, ironically, is now owned by Disney]), which runs with the legend that Anastasia somehow survived the execution of the Romanovs (with significant changes, of course) and eventually came back to Moscow to face the zombie/undead/spirit Rasputin.

It’s a much more exciting movie than this book is.

I mean, Meyer is much, much more historically accurate than the film. No undead Rasputin (in fact, Meyer doesn’t even go into the strangeness of his death at all, probably since the fact (or legend) that he was poisoned, shot a few times, and then dropped into a river probably wouldn’t go over well for a children’s book), no lost child Anastasia at the train station, no survival of firing squad. But the problem is that though she’s more historically accurate, there’s barely any context for anything that happens in the book. The historical note mentions that Anastasia and the Romanovs pretty much lived in a bubble, and Meyer demonstrates that excellently well—too well, actually, because Anastasia seems oblivious to why anything is happening—but seems to forget that an important part of telling a character’s story is also making sure readers understand history.

About the only thing Meyer describes decently well is Father Grigori/Rasputin. Other than that, even with being familiar with that time period in Russia, I struggled to connect the dots between offhand comments of discontent, Nicholas II’s takeover of the military, his abdication, the Provisional Government, and the Bolshevik revolution.

I think perhaps what caused some of the issues was that this book covers a four-year-period, which means that there are huge jumps in time and lots of short entries where Anastasia just talks about gardening or something like that. Those interspersed with more historical entries just makes everything confused and hard to follow. Anastasia barely gives a cursory look at the history, politics, and views that led to the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin, so in that respect it really doesn’t do a particularly good job. It’s slightly better if you think of it as Meyer simply telling the story from a sheltered royal’s point of view, who wouldn’t know much of anything going on, but I think that’s missing the point of historical fiction.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

2020 Newbery Medal: New Kid by Jerry Craft

New Kid, by Jerry Craft, was published in 2019 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5                                          

I’m not really a huge fan of graphic novels. The art is beautiful, sure, but it doesn’t feel quite the same as reading just text. I feel similarly about ebooks—it’s not the same as reading a hardcopy, and I enjoy it much less. To me, something seems missing when I read something like a graphic novel.

That being said, New Kid is a good graphic novel (though admittedly I’ve read approximately three others before this one, so I’m not really that great of a judge) with many important messages in it (perhaps too many). Jordan starts at a new school in an upscale area of town, worlds away from his neighborhood, and has to overcome racial and social boundaries as he navigates this new world. I think younger audiences will love the many, many pop culture references of each chapter, and Craft’s drawings are really good at conveying Jordan’s thoughts and feelings (such as when pre-teen Jordan is replaced with baby Jordan when he feels like his parents are just talking over him), as well as other characters (I particularly enjoyed Alexandra’s “flying” when she got super excited that Jordan talked to her).

There’s a lot of stuff packed into this novel: friendship, racism, bullying, misunderstandings, social classes…there’s almost too much, honestly; by the time the fifth or sixth theme pops in, things start getting a little tired. However, Craft does his best to give some nuance to what could have been an incredibly heavy-handed book, and it helps that all of the characters in the book are incredibly realistic. I loved the part at the end where Jordan does his best to extend an olive branch to the irritating classmate he spent the entire novel clashing with.

I can definitely see why New Kid won the Newbery Medal; especially considering the more recent wins, this book practically screams “Pick me! Pick me!” I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have enjoyed a novel, but I have a hard time sinking into different media for stories.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee, by Alan Gratz, was published in 2017 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5                                          

Refugee tells the story of three children in three different time periods who are forced to leave their home and become, as the title states, refugees. Each chapter switches between the three and often situations and words are linked together to help with the flow. There’s also several surprising connections between the three despite there being a 70-year time range covered.

The children are Josef, a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 on the ship St. Louis; Isabel, a Cuban fleeing Castro’s Cuba in 1994; and Mahmoud, a Syrian fleeing the civil war in 2015. Each are based on true stories, and Gratz has an extensive historical note in the back detailing what was real and what was fictional in each child’s story.

Though I’m not a fan of switching viewpoints every chapter, once I got used to it in this book, I thought it was a good way to tell the story. It helped that Gratz linked the viewpoints together by having the characters think similar things, or have similar situations appear to link the end of one section to the beginning of the next. Though I got a bit aggravated by the cliffhanger endings eventually, Gratz does a great job of keeping the book suspenseful. Though Isabel’s and Mahmoud’s stories were fairly predictable, Josef’s, at least, had a surprising twist at the end that makes his story, at least, far more stark and grim than the other two. And for the most part, Gratz limits preachiness, though at times he delivers his point a little too forcefully.

I’m not sure if younger children will truly understand what Gratz is trying to do with this book (especially since they’re less likely to read all the notes at the end that also detail how to help refugees today), but older children certainly will, and the multiple viewpoints, male and female protagonists, and suspense will appeal to every reader.  

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Realistic

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler, by John Hendrix, was published in 2018 by Amulet.

Rating: 5/5                                          

Combining stunning, full-colored illustrations interwoven with text, The Faithful Spy depicts the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, and his role in the numerous assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler during World War II. It’s not an intensive biography; Hendrix is much more concerned with explaining Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and motivations. Using numerous exact quotations from Bonhoeffer’s writings and some poetic license, Hendrix spins a gripping tale of a madman’s attempts to rule the Western world, and the desperate people who tried to stop him.

This is a book about Bonhoeffer, but it is also a book about Hitler and Germany, because in order to explain why and how Bonhoeffer got involved with the Abwehr, the German spy agency who became dedicated to getting rid of Hitler, Hendrix also had to describe the state of Germany at the time and how Hitler rose to power. There’s so much information packed in a short amount of time, but it all flows naturally, and of course the art makes everything stand out that much more. And the best part is that everything is explained simply enough that the audience of the book (it’s a middle-grade/young adult book) would be able to completely understand, even if they didn’t know much about World War I or World War II.

Another great thing about the book is the reverence and attention-to-detail that Hendrix gives to Bonhoeffer’s faith, and to Christianity in general. Hendrix acknowledges Hitler’s manipulation of Christianity (and also truthfully states that Hitler hated Christianity because of its doctrine of love and charity), but by setting that manipulation side-by-side with Bonhoeffer’s pure faith, the reader is more able to readily see what true Christianity is (rather than the twisted version that people in power so often give).

I learned so much more about Bonhoeffer, and about Hitler and Germany, than I ever thought I would from this book. The Faithful Spy is visually appealing and comprehensive in subject; Hendrix also lists an extensive bibliography and notes at the end, which is rare to see in a book for children. I picked this up on a whim, and am so pleased that I did—truly a delight from cover-to-cover.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Nonfiction