As I hoped, once the Quiner family moved to Concord,
the books started to get more interesting and memorable. In On Top of Concord Hill, the last book
Wilkes will write of this series, a stepfather, the Gold Rush, cholera, and
early frost all combine to create perhaps the most tension-filled book in the
series so far. Of course, it’s still very tame tension, but it’s much better
than what has been in the first three books.
This is also the first book that was written after the start of the Martha Years, which might explain why suddenly Caroline’s grandparents are mentioned more and why the cover has changed more and more to express similarity between the sets of books.
The thing I most enjoyed about this book was the
subtle, lovely hints we got at the Charlotte/Frederick Holbrook relationship. I’m
not sure whether in real life Charlotte married him for stability or love, but
in this book, it’s very sweet to see the way they interact with each other. I
am a huge fan of shy/quiet guy-marries-girl tropes, so perhaps that’s why this
book so far is my favorite of all the Caroline books (though there wasn’t much
competition, to be honest).
With an author change and the introduction of the
Ingalls family in the next book, it will be interesting to see if the Caroline
books will continue to improve or if the changes will be too jarring. I
remember quite liking the last book in the series, so I’m hopeful that the
change won’t shake things up too badly (or perhaps they will shake them up in a
Julie of the Wolves is one of the wilder, out-there children’s books I’ve read. George clearly loves survival novels, as she also wrote My Side of the Mountain. Julie of the Wolves, however, has the titular character surviving in the wilds of Alaska while also being accepted into a wolf pack. (!?)
The book’s premise is bonkers, and I honestly have no idea if any of the things that Miyax does to ingratiate herself into the wolf pack would actually work, especially since I know that wolf packs work differently than what was thought back when the book was written. But it does make the book incredibly interesting, so there’s that positive going for it.
I enjoyed the way George used Miyax’s name to
highlight important moments. She’s Miyax in the wilderness, Julie in
civilization, and then Julie again at the end of the book when she realizes
that she can’t live the way she wants. It’s interesting to see her struggle
with the realization that her father, the great Eskimo hunter, has succumbed to
the dominant ideas, and the way that his killing of Amaroq is almost akin to
the death of a lasting Eskimo culture. And her shedding of her name, Miyax, and
taking up the English name, Julie, is the last signal in the book that
everything has changed.
George is playing around with and showing a lot of
interesting and important ideas in Julie
of the Wolves, but it’s ruined slightly by the sheer “But would it work!?”
surreal angle of the basic plot. I’m also not sure how well explaining being
married at thirteen to the readers of this book would go, as well as the scary
scene in the middle where Daniel attacks Julie. And, to be honest, I think a
lot of the nuance in the book would fly over a younger reader’s head (you’d be
amazed at the sorts of things my high school students miss in books).
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Some slight, brief indication of domestic abuse/attempted rape.
The Middle Moffat focuses on Jane Moffat, as opposed to the all-encompassing Moffat family viewpoint of the first book, and her thoughts, struggles, and opinions over a year-ish of time. I don’t remember this book nearly as much as The Moffats, so it was almost entirely new to me. And it was a delight to read.
I think the thing I enjoyed the most about this book
was Jane’s thoughts, her rambling, sometimes odd, but exactly on point in terms
of age, thoughts that cover at least half of most of the chapters. As she
explores playing the organ, taking care of the oldest inhabitant, dealing with
Wally Bangs, and participating in the basketball game and the parade, her
thoughts perfectly encompass the sorts of things a child doing those things
might think about. It really is so delightful and fun to read her wondering
about shooting baskets in a basketball game, and all the running and chaos that
incurs, and all the things she doesn’t want to do beyond shooting baskets.
For younger readers, the book might be a little hard
to understand because of all the outdated language, especially in terms of
describing clothing, but Jane is inviting and endearing as a character, so I
don’t think the setting will inhibit too much.
The Moffats was a good book, but The Middle Moffat made me fall in love with Estes and the Moffat family, especially Jane. I’m really looking forward to seeing what charm and delight the next books might bring.
Clearing in the Woods finally starts to lift the Caroline
books out of the pit of mediocrity they were sinking into. The family moving,
the hardships they face on the new land, the new people they meet—all combine
to form, if not a particularly dramatic book, at least enough tension to
generate some excitement and interest.
The first half of the book has some overly dramatic
conflict with wolves, delivered a bit clunkily, but once the family reaches
their new home, it settles down to a more realistic conflict as the family
struggles to get used to new surroundings. Caroline and Martha have a few
spats, and I wish Martha was more developed of a character so that the fights
would have more meaning instead of feeling so wooden.
The second half of the book is better than the first,
with the introduction of Mr. Holbrook. Despite my problems with Wilkes’
writing, I will say that she paints a very good picture of the financial
situation of the family. It is very clear that they struggle to put food on the
table, and so the kindness of Mr. Holbrook and the generosity of Mr. Kellogg
shine through even more.
It’s a shame that the Caroline Years don’t start out
quite as strong or interesting as the previous two series, but at last the
series seems to be improving. Little
Clearing in the Woods still shares some of the problems of the first two
books, but the second half promises better things to come.
Sometimes I really wonder what is going through the minds of those who pick the Newbery Medal books. There are those Newbery Medals that are really wow! books, and there are those that are more eh, shrug, move on. Then there are the books that I’ve really questioned, like Secret of the Andesbeating Charlotte’s Web, or Daniel Boonewinning the Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake.
Universe is a book that I question.
For one thing, the plot of this book is glacially
slow. There are 311 pages, and 231 of those pages cover the same day. The entire plot of the book is based around a couple
of hours in the lives of four kids, and there’s simply not enough excitement to
make the pace feel fast at all. In addition, the plot itself is simplistic and
bare-bones. The characters stand around and talk most of the time. And Chet,
the bully, is stereotypical and overexaggerated. At least Kelly gave some
insight into his behavior by giving him chapters that explored his home
For another, Kelly utilizes the most irritating trend of contemporary literature: the third person/first person point of view switch. I have never understood this. It’s more annoying than first person present tense. Of the four kids, three of them get 3rd person treatment. Valencia gets 1st person. Why? What is the point? Also, why are her chapters only ever titled “Valencia”? Everyone else gets titled chapters as per the content. Valencia’s chapters are only ever given her name. Why? What is the point?
This book does, though, offer fascinating insight into the minds of readers today. They seem to value diversity over everything else, even story, and they expect their diverse characters to act appropriately diversely by following quite rigid patterns and speaking and acting only in ways that are deemed appropriate. This book celebrates diversity, with Virgil (Filipino), Kaori (Japanese), and Valencia (deaf), and then showcases that diversity everywhere. “Look at this book! It’s diverse!” is shouted from every page. This is a good thing, and Kelly avoids old stereotypes in all of her portrayals, though her attempts at bullying were a little excessive, in my opinion.
Yet, in my opinion, Kelly sacrifices a good story at the altar of diversity. What good is highlighting diversity if you can’t also create a compelling, interesting story? It is possible to create fantastic stories with diverse characters, so why are people seemingly settling for less? All Hello, Universe shows is that Kelly capitalized on the diversity trend without bothering with what makes a book actually memorable and long-lasting, which is the story. In my opinion, it cheapens diversity to a selling point.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Psychics, astrology, way too many uses of the word “retard.”
Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Soul of an American President: The Untold Story of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Faith, by Alan Sears, Craig Osten, and Ryan Cole, from Baker Books. All opinions are my own.
I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction lately, especially about people or events in history, so when Baker offered this book, I decided to read it. The book mainly focuses on, as the title suggests, the path of Eisenhower’s faith through his life. I appreciated that the authors mentioned straight away that they weren’t looking to glorify Eisenhower, but to portray his journey as realistically as possible, flaws and all. Mainly, they seemed concerned with combating the image of Eisenhower as irreligious or secular, so a great deal of time was spent showing the many ways Eisenhower showed his faith in his talks, writings, and actions.
I didn’t know much about Eisenhower before reading this
book, so there was tons of information that I learned, such as his role in
World War II and Operation Overlord. Also interesting was his early life and
his life at the beginning of his presidency when he was baptized. I was hoping
for a little more coverage of Eisenhower’s presidential policies and decisions;
the authors covered many, mostly positive, but I felt as if the majority of his
second term was swept by or summarized too broadly. It also felt a bit as if
the authors were picking and choosing what they wanted to highlight; I can’t
fault them for that because it’s nonfiction and they picked the focus, so of
course they would pick to explain more in detail what fits best with what they
want to say, but I still hoped for more detail.
This book is about Eisenhower’s faith, and that’s what it
gives you. I learned a lot about him and the majority of the book was interesting,
though towards the end I started to skim a little. I enjoyed most the
descriptions of his life and actions up through World War II (my favorite time
period to read about!), and overall I learned more about Eisenhower, his faith,
and the things he did and tried to do to help America than I ever knew before
(admittedly, very little).
Rating books is much harder than it might seem. I’ve
struggled with it a bit recently, as I’ve felt that 3 is now becoming my
default, go-to, “lazy” rating. Or perhaps I’m being more critical of the books
I read, which is why 4s and 5s come so rarely now. I’ve also been hit with a
slew of books that have simply failed to grasp my entire attention. All of
these things combined have been making me wonder if I really should be rating
some books a 4 that I initially think 3.
Maybe I could solve this with a half point system, but
I started the blog with that and then got rid of it for simplicity’s sake.
Anyway, I’m saying all this because I initially thought of rating I, Juan de Pareja a 4 merely because I didn’t want to give it a 3. I mean, I gave Merci Suárez Changes Gears a 3, and I feel like I enjoyed this book more than Medina’s. But, after thinking about it, I realized that I really didn’t have any desire to read the book again or think about it anymore (big factors in my ratings of books). And when I was reading it, I was more interested in finishing the book so I could pick up the other book I wanted to read more. So, it’s a 3.
I did actually enjoy lots of things about the book, though. I loved the writing, for some reason, or perhaps it was simply a nice change after the simplicity of Merci Suárez’s. I thought the content was interesting, especially the historical aspect. It’s a bit of an obscure topic, but some of my favorite historical fiction novels have those sorts of topics. And even though Juan’s attitudes towards slavery are a bit…well, not progressive, Borton de Treviño does throw in some different views about it, as well as lots of cultural information in general. Plus, Las Meninas is one of my favorite paintings, so it was cool to see some of the backstory (real and imagined) of Diego Velasquez and the slave-turned-painter Juan de Pareja.
Suárez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina, was published in 2018
I loved Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn, a YA book that dealt with a tough (and rarely discussed) topic. So I was interested to see how her foray into MG would be like, especially since it won the Newbery Medal. My verdict? Merci Suárez Changes Gears is disappointingly average.
It lacks some oomph, some sparkle, some sort of thing that would make it so much better than it is. Maybe the writing needed to be jazzed up. Maybe the platitudes and the cheesy way the book ended helped to keep it weighed down in “mediocre” territory. It’s not that the topic wasn’t relevant, or that the book was boring. It was simply missing…something.
I did appreciate the more nuanced sort of look at school troubles that Medina gave, though. I do have to give her credit for creating a realistic school atmosphere, and a more realistic look at bullying. I myself had way more experience with bullies who were friendly one day and mean the next, rather than the “I have a personal vendetta against you” bully that is so often portrayed, so I felt Medina’s take was much more reflective of what actually occurs, showing how navigating friendships and other people is complicated, especially in the tumultuous preteen and teen years.
However, that does leave me wondering as to why no one
ever writes a story from the bully’s point of view. Where are all the books
about the Ednas? Why does no author bother to tackle that sort of challenge?
Anyway, Merci Suárez
Changes Gears doesn’t break out of any boxes or push any boundaries in
terms of writing conventions or tropes. It’s a disappointing book, one that
could have been much better with just a little something extra added to it to
truly make it shine.
Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of All Manner of Things, by Susie Finkbeiner, from Revell. All opinions are my own.
My rating: 3/5
All Manner of Things takes
place during the Vietnam War, and while the main character has a brother who
joins the army, and certain details of the culture of the time and the negative
attitude towards the war is shown, there’s so much more to the book than just
that. There’s also the theme of war in general, and how it affects
people—Annie, the main character, has a father who was left with PTSD or
similar after the Korean War, and abandoned the family while she was young.
After the brother leaves to go to Vietnam, he gives her information about where
her father is, starting a chain of events that leads to the father coming back
into their lives, but not particularly nicely or neatly. The way Finkbeiner
handles the way the family navigates the reappareance of a long-absence father
is very well done.
Finkbeiner also includes aspects of the Civil Rights
movement as well, though not too much. Annie starts up a friendship with a
black man, David, and while everyone seems okay with it, it’s very clear that
David is considered an outsider. Overall, I enjoyed the fact that Finkbeiner
didn’t make the novel as dark and angsty as it could have been. It was a very
light, wholesome novel, despite the sad parts.
All Manner of Things is
very carefully and cleverly constructed. The characters have great voices,
especially the three children (well, technically two are young adults): Mike,
Annie, and Joel. The mother is perhaps the flattest of all the characters, but
everyone’s interactions are all very well done. The letters in between each
chapter are also really good at communicating tone and atmosphere.
I really enjoyed All Manner of Things, so I debated for a while whether to give a 4
rating or not. However, in the end I felt the book was missing something. It
was just one step away from being entirely engrossing. As it was, I enjoyed it,
but I didn’t feel absorbed by it. I was able to put it down easily and walk
away. It was just missing some sort of connection for me. I’d probably
recommend it to other people, but it didn’t have the sort of pull that would
make me come back to it again.
The Outcast is full of cheese and fluff and represents a cheap version of a prophecy fulfillment story. The problems I spotted in The Hatchling return tenfold in this book, to the point where not even nostalgia could win the day.
Let’s start with Nyroc/Coryn. Coryn consistently
speaks in grandiose, cheesy statements, and is given advice that is also
grandiose and cheesy. He’s not as familiar or as memorable a protagonist as
Soren; in fact, he’s a rather flat character who is pretty much flawless in
every way. The only thing Coryn struggles with in this book is fear that other
people will confuse him with his mother. He does everything perfectly because,
as this book tells us multiple times, he is the next owl king and everyone
knows it and welcomes him and whoever doesn’t recognize that fact is evil.
The side characters also speak declaratively and
pithily. Even the introduction of the dire wolves and their clan system is
derailed by the clunky dialogue and lack of plot. Too much happens too fast,
and there wasn’t enough buildup to this whole idea of a new owl king for the
plot to be in any way coherent or believable.
Lasky tried to take this series in a different
direction, but the lack of adequate development and buildup, lack of
worldbuilding in terms of Hoolian knowledge (something she tries to rectify
with her three prequels about Hoole) and prophecies, and the awkward, cheesy
dialogue only make The Outcast a
chore to read and difficult to finish.