The Dragon’s Tooth, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2011 by Random House.
For two years, Cyrus and Antigone Smith have run a sagging roadside motel with their older brother, Daniel. Nothing ever seems to happen. Then a strange old man with bone tattoos arrives, demanding a specific room. Less than 24 hours later, the old man is dead. The motel has burned, and Daniel is missing. And Cyrus and Antigone are kneeling in a crowded hall, swearing an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world’s secrets, keepers of powerful relics from lost civilizations, and jailers to unkillable criminals who have terrorized the world for millennia.
I was fairly interested in The Dragon’s Tooth when I started the book, hoping that the title would promise Actual Dragons at some point. I had liked 100 Cupboards enough to give Wilson a try again (especially if there was going to be dragons!). The beginning seemed pretty interesting, too, if fairly formulaic: unassuming young boy meets stranger, is handed a Mystical Object, and is almost immediately chased by Shadowy Figures.
It’s after that point when the book descended very swiftly into quirky fantasy territory, and my interest and excitement plunged with it.
Also, there are no dragons.
By the time Cyrus and Antigone got to Strange Base/Secret Lair/Pseudo Hogwarts, I knew that the rest of the book would be difficult for me to finish. Every person Cyrus and Antigone met sounded stilted, and the incomprehensible jargon and blather that was disjointedly thrown in to make things more mysterious and worldbuildy got annoying, fast. Cyrus makes odd decisions, overly eager at one point and overly cautious at the next. His squabbles with Antigone slow the pace of the book down and do nothing but create obstacles (as well as solidify Antigone as a useless character) for Cyrus to either obey or reject, depending on what the plot requires.
In addition, the villain is cartoonish and strange and almost too powerful, in the way where you wonder, if things are so easy for him to accomplish, why he hasn’t done anything before that particular moment in the book (like, if it’s so easy to get to Secret Base (I forgot the name), why in the world hasn’t he done it sooner?) Nothing about the world Wilson created makes sense, and things are poorly explained.
I think Wilson was trying to go for “quirky fantasy” and went way too far, taking “quirky” into “incomprehensible mess.” I actually don’t think I would have minded quite so much if there had been one less strange character, and especially if the villain hadn’t been so cartoonish. If the villain had been a serious villain, rather than what he was, I think I would have been able to stomach The Dragon’s Tooth a little bit better.
Disclaimer: Engraved on the Heart, by Tara Johnson, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Reluctant debutante Keziah Montgomery lives beneath the weighty expectations of her staunch Confederate family, forced to keep her epilepsy secret for fear of a scandal. As the tensions of the Civil War arrive on their doorstep in Savannah, Keziah sees little cause for balls and courting. Despite her discomfort, she cannot imagine an escape from her familial confines—until her old schoolmate Micah shows her a life-changing truth that sets her feet on a new path . . . as a conductor in the Underground Railroad. Dr. Micah Greyson never hesitates to answer the call of duty, no matter how dangerous, until the enchanting Keziah walks back into his life and turns his well-ordered plans upside down. Torn between the life he has always known in Savannah and the fight for abolition, Micah struggles to discern God’s plan amid such turbulent times. Battling an angry fiancé, a war-tattered brother, bounty hunters, and their own personal demons, Keziah and Micah must decide if true love is worth the price . . . and if they are strong enough to survive the unyielding pain of war.
My rating: 2/5
I was interested by the summary of Engraved on the Heart and hoped it would have lots of intrigue, sneaking around, and escapes from danger, as befitting the promise of the setting. I hoped the romance would be imaginative and original, though I didn’t really have too many high hopes in that regard.
I like it when authors introduce elements to the story that make it more unique, and Johnson did that with Keziah’s epilepsy and exploring the stigma associated with the illness. I wish a little bit more time had been spent on it, but at least it was an established part of her character. I liked Keziah in general and her characterization and growth were overall okay. Micah was a typical male love interest, and he didn’t stand out much in any way except for a bit at the end.
Most of the events that happened in regards to the Underground Railroad were pretty plausible. I recently read a book on the topic, and much of what happens in the book fits. My only quibble is that I don’t remember if they were actually calling it “the Underground Railroad” at the time. I also think getting a peek at Lucy’s escape would have been nice, since it seemed way too easy and vague. I also thought the way the plan was communicated to Lucy was dubious and unbelievable.
I won’t harp on the romance, but I’m getting tired of reading the same thing over and over. This romance played out exactly like most of the others in these sorts of books: love at first sight between two amazingly good-looking people, one or both has secret doubts about pursuing a relationship, they refuse to be in a relationship but still end up holding each other/kissing, etc. etc. etc. This romance in particular seemed incredibly similar to the one in the last book I read. It’s clear this sort of thing is being written to please the audience rather than to give something original and exploratory.
Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.
Susanna Fairchild and her family are on board a ship sailing from New York to the West, where they plan to start a new life in Oregon. But tragedy strikes when Susanna’s mother is lost to the sea. Hearing stories of great wealth, Susanna’s physician father decides he wants to join the hordes of men rushing to California to mine for gold.
While I wouldn’t call Seeds of Hope a sequel to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, Gregory does connect the two books together by having the Fairchilds be related to the Campbells. It isn’t necessary to have read Prairie, of course. The inclusion of the Campbells is more of a bonus to readers who have read Gregory’s Oregon Trail entry first.
This is another of my favorite Dear America books (I really am a fan of Gregory), partly because of the purple cover, partly because it’s well-written and goes into a lot of historical detail. I learned more about the Gold Rush in this book then I did in Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, which is also about the Gold Rush. The book definitely doesn’t pull any punches; it opens with a death, and includes amputation, hangings, betrayal, and theft, as well as veiled clues about prostitution. What I like most about the Dear America series is that it does not sugar-coat or hide anything that could have happened in that time period, it merely mentions it in ways that are appropriate for children.
The novel also conveys how atypical and dangerous it was for two young women to be on their own during the Gold Rush, yet also takes the time to describe not only the kindness of strangers, but also the steps Susanna and Clara took to protect themselves. And there’s never any underlying threat that makes one worry about their safety throughout the book; again, this is a book for children, so while it’s mentioned what Susanna and Clara do to protect themselves from prowlers and thieves, there’s never anything too dark that is hinted at.
I have a feeling that Gregory’s Dear America books will be the stand-outs for me in this series; she seems to have achieved the knack of writing memorable characters and conveying the historical time period accurately and interestingly. Seeds of Hope is another great addition to Dear America, one I remember fondly.
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.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry, was published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Life in the community where Jonas lives is idyllic. Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units: one male, one female, to each. Citizens are assigned their partners and their jobs. No one thinks to ask questions. Everyone obeys. The community is a precisely choreographed world without conflict, inequality, divorce, unemployment, injustice…or choice. Everyone is the same. Except Jonas. At the Ceremony of Twelve, the community’s twelve-year-olds eagerly accept their predetermined Life Assignments. But Jonas is chosen for something special. He begins instruction in his life’s work with a mysterious old man known only as The Giver. Gradually Jonas learns that power lies in feelings .But when his own power is put to the test—when he must try to save someone he loves—he may not be ready. Is it too soon? Or too late?
Confession time: I’ve never read The Giver before. Even after years of hearing people tell me how great it was, even after the hype surrounding the movie and the renewed interest in the book it brought, I never read it. So, this was my first time reading The Giver, and I got to see firsthand whether or not I thought it was as good as people told me.
And the verdict is…mostly. It’s mostly as good.
The message behind The Giver is excellent. Lowry shows the importance of feelings, memories, and choice through the chilling world of the community, where everything is predetermined and feelings are suppressed. While this sort of utopia sounds good on paper (a place where there’s no animosity, injustice, inequality, etc.), the reality Lowry shows makes it clear that the utopia is actually a dystopia, and that in the effort to make things peaceful, the community has dehumanized life and people and sucked out all the color and diversity and humanity that emotions and choice bring to people. The message is clear and easy to understand, making this an ideal book to talk about the importance of freedom with children.
The one blip on the radar for me is that the world, plot, and ideas are simplistic, and, at times, confusing. Vague, hand-wavy “science” has accomplished the colorless, emotionless life of the community. However, the Giver and, in turn, Jonas, have powers of memory that border on the magical, not the scientific, and Jonas’s ability to “see beyond” also seems more magical than not, making the world a strange blend of science fiction and fantasy, but not really selling either genre. In addition, the structure behind the idea of a Receiver/Giver of Memory is hazy at times, and it’s not clear why, once Jonas has left the boundaries of the community, the memories return rather than stay with him.
Lowry builds the chilling world of The Giver well; by the end, the people seem like robots, or maybe just unfeeling, emotionless shells. However, occasionally her world is less than airtight in development, especially regarding the whole foundation of memory, and it fluctuates between science fiction and fantasy with no clear line or explanation. It’s a book ripe for discussion, and even if it is simplistic, at least it’s a profound simplistic.
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.
Disclaimer: Together Forever, by Jody Hedlund, was provided by Bethany House. It is the sequel to With You Always. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Determined to find her lost younger sister, Marianne Neumann takes a job as a placing agent with the Children’s Aid Society in 1858 New York. She not only hopes to offer children a better life, but prays she’ll be able to discover whether Sophie ended up leaving the city on an orphan train so they can finally be reunited. Andrew Brady, her fellow agent on her first placing-out trip, is a former schoolteacher who has an easy way with the children, frim but tender and friendly. Underneath his charm and handsome looks, though, seems to linger a grief that won’t go away—and a secret from his past that he keeps hidden. As the two team up, placing orphans in the small railroad towns of Illinois, they find themselves growing ever closer…until a shocking tragedy threatens to upend all their work and change on of their live forever.
Together Forever tells the story of Marianne Neumann, the sister of Elise Neumann, the protagonist of With You Always. It picks up the plot thread of the missing sister, Sophie, but very quickly sidelines it for a romantic plot, which is a shame because the missing sister is the most interesting thing in this series, and sidelining it really doesn’t make the characters look good. More on that later on.
Yes, this book is a romance, and boy, does Hedlund really accentuate that. There must be dozens of stolen glances, thoughts about the “delicate” and “elegant” features of Marianne, thoughts about the “strong jaw” and “toned muscles” and “warm skin” of Drew, and multiple looks of desire and/or longing. Hedlund throws in some events to make everything more dramatic, such as Reinhold, Marianne’s old (one-sided) flame, a murder, and some orphan children.
I think I might have enjoyed this book more, cliché and unoriginal romance (and tropes used) aside, if I had liked the characters more. Yet there’s really nothing that drew me to Marianne or Drew; Reinhold was more interesting, but showed up far too infrequently. The problem with Drew is that he’s the typical love interest in these sorts of books—handsome, clever, capable, with some sort of dark past that comes back to haunt him and throw tension into his relationship. The problem with Marianne is that for someone who’s so devoted to finding her sister, she barely does anything about it throughout the course of the book beyond read a few pages of a logbook. The rest of the time she’s busy flirting with Drew, when she’s not contemplating the fate of the orphans she’s placing. There’s also an absurd scene at the end of the novel that’s so contrived and such a dumb thing to do on the part of the characters (basically, it’s a “let’s pretend this is real and lead people on even though we know it’s wrong” decision) that I grew even more irritated at the romance between the two.
If I can say anything positive about Together Forever, it’s that Hedlund shows both sides of the orphan train. She shows it from the point of view of how many of the orphans who would have been living on the streets otherwise were taken in by families and cared for. But she also shows the side of how well those families will treat those orphans, as well as the idea that it’s basically selling children. I appreciated that she showed both perspectives. To be honest, I didn’t know much about orphan trains, so it was nice to see that part of history explored. The rest of the book, though, I could have done without.
The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J. A. White, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.
When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic, except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr’s Realm. But mostly it’s called the Thickety. The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother. And that is just the beginning of the story.
I very nearly stopped reading The Thickety: A Path Begins about halfway through, and then through the last half of the book wished I had stopped reading. A Path Begins is a tale about Kara, the daughter of a witch, who finds a book in the Thickety and is swept up into the seductive realm of magic. Only her brother, Taff, keeps her from being totally lost, and along the way she faces more immediate threats than the mysterious forest demon Sordyr.
The worst part about A Path Begins was the writing, in my opinion. Full of melodramatic dialogue, stilted description, and forced tension, it was a bad omen from the start. And it shaded everything in this book with a terrible light—the writing was so bothersome to me that I found it hard to find anything that I liked about the book. Even the setting is over-the-top, with a too-fanatical leader and a world that is so exaggerated in its extremes that it’s farcical. There are too many villains and Kara herself does too many stupid things for me to want to cheer for her.
The plot is also riddled with inconsistencies, like how Kara sprains her ankle and five minutes later is running on it with apparently no pain or problems whatsoever. There’s also the strange flip-flopping between “magic is good” and “magic is bad,” with the final decision between “good witch” and “bad witch” a completely arbitrary one, delivered clumsily, and ignoring the fact that such black and white pronouncements only lead to problems, mostly for the authors writing the characters who then have to explain away their character’s actions in order to fit them into their defined roles.
Really, the story just reads like a man wrote it. That’s not a bad thing, but I oftentimes have more problems with men’s style of writing than women’s. They just have ways of describing things that I can’t wrap my head around, and they also focus on things that I don’t understand why they would focus on.
I regret finishing A Path Begins because it took up a lot of time to read and now I can never get that time back. It was too melodramatic, too stilted, too forced. None of the characters appealed to me and I have no interest in seeing more of the world or finding out what happens next.
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.