not-so-new books

Not-So-New Books: The Game of Silence

Not-So-New Books: The Game of Silence

The story of Omakayas continues in this second book in the late elementary/early middle grades series, which focuses on the changes brought about by white settlers in Native American territory.

Not-So-New Books: Redwall

It’s been a challenge to find books that my 10-year-old son likes to read or listen to, but we have hit gold with the first book of a very long series: Redwall by Brian Jacques. It has everything that my son likes: nature (the characters are all animals), adventure, and rebellion (he is a Star Wars fan, after all). 

Redwall is an ancient stone abbey, inhabited by peaceful mice that take care of and offer comfort to all the woodland creatures living in Mossflower—the forested area around the abbey. Unfortunately, an evil, one-eyed rat named Cluny and his followers are on their way to Redwall, aiming to conquer it and seize control of all of Mossflower. The mice of Redwall and their friends have to band together to save their home. Among them, a very special mouse named Mathias is on an epic journey to find the sword that belonged to Martin the Warrior, an ancient hero in Redwall history. He knows that if he can find this sword, he might be able to save Redwall. 

This book is on one hand a classic story of good versus evil, but it’s also a very intelligent book. I love how unlikely characters are brought together and become friends in order to fight against injustice. Female characters take on key roles in the fight too. The author shows how pride, arrogance, and greed will eventually send a character to his or her doom. This is a book that as an adult, I enjoyed just as much as my son. We are now reading the second book in this series, Mossflower, and oh my, there are twenty more books after that! I’m pretty sure my son will want to read them all.


Book Review: The Curve of Time

The Curve of Time
By M. Wylie Blanchet
 

The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet is a must-read for all homeschooling moms. It’s a memoir written by a widow and a mother of five children, who, during the 1920s and 30s, took her children on their 25-foot cruiser, The Caprice, to explore the waters of British Columbia every summer. During the winter, they lived in their Little House, which overlooked the water, and she home educated her children. This was at a time when there were still relatively few white residents in this area.

There is information that is not given in the book, such as what exactly happened to her husband, or where her children went after they grew up. If you aren’t familiar with British Columbia, you may not understand exactly where every inlet and fjord is that they explored, but none of that bothered me. I was enthralled with each chapter, which is a short account of each of their adventures. They followed the orcas, had an encounter with a bear and cougar, talked to locals, and explored the winter villages of Native Americans who were still living there at that time. (I didn’t exactly approve of how they entered the villages without permission, but considering this was written in a different time, I decided to appreciate this first-person account of this primary document.) 

As I was reading the book, I marveled at this woman who not only was raising five young children all by herself, she also had to be a captain, navigator, meteorologist, and mechanic. I traveled on these waters many years ago with my father in his boat, so I know it’s important to understand the tides and how deep the water is before you attempt to enter any small cove. And Wylie Blanchet had no technology to help her! There was no such thing as a depth finder in her day. Then I thought about the challenges of raising and homeschooling two boys on land with my husband, and I wondered if she might be a super woman. 

Or, perhaps she found it easier to contain all five children into a small boat. There was no end to the entertainment they found on the beaches and in the woods, catching fish for dinner, picking berries, escaping bears, finding small fresh water lakes, and making friends with other settlers along the way. I appreciated her details about the flora and fauna. I felt like I was in The Caprice and seeing a world that I’ll never be able to go to. I was sad when the book ended because I wanted the adventures to continue.

This book might be a little boring for the younger crowd, but it would be a good book to include in history studies or as a selection of Canadian literature for high school students. The 50th anniversary edition includes black and white family photographs taken by Blanchet’s family, which will bring you closer to this endearing family.


Not-So-New Books: The Homeward Bounders

The Homeward Bounders
By Diana Wynne Jones
 

Jamie is a curious kid. And one day, his curiosity gets him in the worst kind of trouble when he stumbles on a group of shadowy, cloaked figures playing a secret game and gets expelled from his world by them: “You are now a discard. We have no further use for you in play. You are free to walk the Bounds, but it will be against the rules for you to enter play in any world. If you succeed in returning Home, then you may enter play again in the normal manner.”

As Jamie stumbles through his new circumstances, figuring out the rules of the game as he’s pulled from fantastic world to fantastic world (Diana Wynne Jones is a genius when it comes to creating worlds) at irregular intervals by Them, he dreams of finding his way home. What he finds instead are two friends in the same position he is: Helen, a priestess with a magic arms, and Joris, an assistant to a famous demon-hunter. Together, they decide that it’s time to put an end to Their manipulative gaming and to get back to their own worlds for good. They end up in up in a contemporary version of England, where they team up with two regular people and Joris’s demon-hunter owner who’s crossed world barriers to find his assistant. But defeating Them is no easy task, and the price for victory may be greater than they anticipated.

I love Diana Wynne Jones for many reasons, but one of them is that her books are always surprising—even though she often plays with the same ideas, the same worlds, and even the same characters, you can never predict what’s going to happen next in her books. Homeward Bounders was the first of her books I read as a kid, and it stuck with me—it’s so weird and compelling, and it has one of the best and saddest last lines of any story ever. I love the way her books blend the mythology and history we know with her own made-up history and mythology, so that you’re constantly realizing connections right along with the characters in the story. There’s always an undercurrent of darkness in her books, and it’s definitely strong in this one, but I like that her happy endings are never simple. Reading level-wise, this is a middle grades book, but like so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, it’s hard to pigeonhole. Older or younger readers could definitely love it.



Not So New Books: Mandy

Mandy (Julie Andrews Collection)
By Julie Andrews Edwards

Sometimes, you want a book that challenges you to think deeper and harder. This is not that book. Mandy is pure comfort reading goodness at its best—you know pretty much from page one that everything is going to turn out okay and people are going to live happily ever after, and that’s just fine.

Mandy is a 10-year-old girl living at a perfectly nice orphanage in a small British village. She has plenty of friends and there’s nothing even remotely Dickensian going on, but still, she longs for a home and a family of her own. One day, she climbs the orphanage wall and discovers a little cottage that appears to be completely deserted. She decides a lonely cottage and a lonely girl were meant for each other and sets to work cleaning and cozying up the cottage and its garden. The cottage starts to feel more and more like home—but Mandy’s secret life takes a toll on the rest of her life, with her friends frustrated by her constant sneaking off and the head of the orphanage frustrated by disappearing tools and supplies Mandy’s “borrowed” for her project. Mandy’s so engrossed her cottage life that she takes a big risk that puts her in danger—until she’s rescued by an unexpected friend. (Cue lead-up to adoption and happy ending for all.)

I will admit that I’m a sucker for books where people fix up old houses, and this is probably one of the books that launched that obsession: Like Mary Lennox with her bit of earth or Twig with her tomato can fairy house, Mandy delights in having a space of her very own, and the book lovingly chronicles both her industrious tidying up and its happy results. It’s an old-fashioned domestic story, and even though it was published in the 1970s, it has a timeless feeling. I love how sweet and simple it is. Sometimes, that’s just really what you want: a heartwarming story with lovely domestic details and a happy ending. I especially love that Mandy's life as an orphan isn't terrible—her orphanage is a nice place, the other kids are nice, and the woman in charge is kind. Of course she wants a family, but it's nice to have an orphan story that doesn't start out with a child in utterly miserable circumstances.

It’s recommended for elementary students, but we enjoyed it as a readaloud with a 2nd grader and an 8th grader, and my 8th grader has gone back and reread it on her own a couple of times. If you’re a fan of books like A Little Princess, The Secret Language, Jane of Lantern Hill, or The Secret Garden, I think you’ll really enjoy Mandy. (And yes, it’s by THE Julie Andrews!)


Book Review: The My Side of the Mountain Trilogy

When I was a young girl, I read My Side of the Mountain, and it instantly became one of my favorite books. I wanted to be Sam Gribley, a fifteen-year-old boy who lives alone in a tree in the Catskill Mountains. He learns to live off the land, and he captures and raises a peregrine falcon, named Frightful, to help him hunt. He also becomes friends with The Baron, a weasel, learns the ways of other forest animals, and meets some interesting people, too.

I knew I had to read this book to my eldest son, who is 10 years old, and I hoped he would like it as much as I did. He did. And to my delight, while we were reading it, I discovered that its author, Jean Craighead George, wrote two sequels to My Side of the Mountain. The second book, On the Far Side of the Mountain, is about when Sam’s younger sister, Alice, joins him on the mountain, making a home of her own in a nearby tree. But Sam is devastated when a so-called conservation officer confiscates Frightful, and then to make life more complicated for him, his sister disappears. Most of this book is about Sam’s quest to find Alice and the danger that he and a friend encounter when they finally get close to finding her.

What I love about this second book is that it deals with the issue of capturing wild birds of prey, which is against the law, yet it also tells us that it’s possible to become a legal falconer. This theme of conservation is carried further into the third book, which has become my favorite in this trilogy. Frightful’s Mountain is written entirely from the falcon’s perspective, and she is now a free bird. Since Sam raised her, however, she has a lot of challenges to overcome, if she wants to become an independent falcon that will raise offspring of her own. With Sam’s help, and with the help of other people who love peregrine falcons, she slowly makes her way back into the wild.

I was not surprised to see that My Side of the Mountain was a Newberry Honor Book. It is definitely a classic. This trilogy, also, is a must read for anyone who loves nature, particularly birds. That’s probably why my son and I loved it so much. ;)


Book Review: The Murk

The Murk
By Robert Lettrick

If you read the Fug Girls, you know all about the scrolldown fug. If you don't read the Fug Girls, you should know that a scrolldown fug is when an outfit looks totally normal until you get to about the waist, where it switches to clown pants or carwash streamers or the dreaded tights-are-not-pants territory. What does this have to do with book recommendations? Well, The Murk by Roberty Lettrick is essentially the literary equivalent of the scrolldown fug.

It starts out normally enough. Piper, a tomboy-turned-pageant queen, is convinced that the cure to her baby sister's rare genetic disease is a plant hidden somewhere in the Okefenokee Swamp. Accompanied by her former best friend Tad (whose botanist ancestor perished on a similar search in the Okefenokee in the 1800s and who has a giant crush on his ex-best bud), her stowaway little brother, and a teenage swamp guide named Perch, Piper sets out to find the mysterious silver flower that is rumored to heal every malady. Perch cheerfully narrates the wonders of the Okefenokee to Piper and her companions (not to mention the reader) as they explore the swamp, tracing Cole's path through the wilderness. It's edu-tainment at its most palatable.

Then things get weird. Because the mythical plant isn't just real, it's sentient, with the power to hypnotize the gators, turtles, and other animal inhabitants of the swamp to do its bidding — and apparently its bidding is to make Piper and Company its dinner. (Oh, did I mention that the plant is carnivorous, too?) The second half of the book veers into a bizarre horror movie territory, with Piper escaping the burning digestive acids in the plant's giant stomach and fire-bombing the heart of the plant. Yeah. I know.

Usually, I'd skip reviewing a book like this simply because of the violence (which definitely gets a bit over-the-top), but I find myself with a soft spot for this book, despite its turn-for-the-weird. It's about the Okefenokee—one of Georgia's seven natural wonders—and the book does contain a wealth of information about one of our country's most famous swamps. And while the whole killer plant thing is pretty wacky, it does introduce some pretty interesting facts about botany. And honestly, it's so utterly odd that I want someone else to read it so its weirdness can be fully appreciated. So I say this is one to stalk at the library — worth checking out, though I'm not sure I'd want to allocate valuable shelf space for it in a permanent way. Though obviously, if you've had a hankering for a book about mind-controlling, carnivorous plants, you'll want to run, not walk, to pick this one up.


Not-So-New Books: The Imaginary

The Imaginary
By A.F. Harrold
 

During the climactic battle of The Imaginary, Amanda and her imaginary friend Rudger try to fend off the evil Mr. Bunting by hiding in an imaginary submarine in Amanda's hospital room. As Amanda and Mr. Bunting feverishly think of imaginary attacks and defenses, Amanda's real life hangs in the balance — which is kind of the point of The Imaginary: Just because something is imaginary doesn't mean it's not real.

Amanda and Rudger's story starts out simply enough. Amanda is a girl with a Big Imagination, so it's only a matter of time until Rudger, a perfect imaginary friend, appears in her closet. Amanda and Rudger have all sorts of adventures together, until creepy Mr. Bunting shows up, followed by his own, even creepier imaginary friend. Mr. Bunting is after Rudger, and when Amanda tries to save her best friend, she's hit by a car, knocked unconscious, and rushed to the hospital. Rudger, meanwhile, is left to fend for himself. What happens to an imaginary friend when its creator forgets it? In Rudger's case, he ends up investigating Mr. Bunting, discovering his nefarious habit of eating imaginary friends to keep himself young. Along the way, he finds an employment office of sorts for abandoned imaginary friends and a new appreciation for what a wonderful friend Amanda really is. Existential crisis notwithstanding, Rudger is a charming hero — an imaginary friend who (literally) takes on a life of his own as he hatches a plot to rescue Amanda and himself.

What's lovely about this book — and what sets it apart from other imaginary friend-based literature (in addition to Emily Gravett's solemn and delightful little illustrations) is that it treats imaginary friends seriously — both the twee, silly, happy side, and the dark, creepy, mysterious side. Because imagination really goes both ways, and anybody who's ever been afraid to fall asleep because of something you've imagined under the bed knows that there's a real dark side to a wonderful imagination. Harrold plays that balance perfectly, dancing lightly from Roald Dahl adventure to Neil Gaiman darkness without stepping too heavily on either side. This book could be a good pick for middle readers who like things a little spooky or for older readers who aren't put off by whimsy. It also makes a nice readaloud, though you may want to assure particularly nervous youngsters that a happy ending is coming during the scarier bits near the conclusion.


Not-So-New Books: Grave Mercy

In an alternate medieval Brittany, Ismae finally finds a home where she belongs — in a convent of Mortain, the god of death, where she studies the delicate art of assassination. But her first assignment calls on all her will and wiles as she's forced to team up with Gavriel Duval, half-brother to the Duchess of Brittany and potential enemy, to take down a plot to overthrow the young Duchess.

If you've ever read a book, it won't be a spoiler to learn that Ismae finds herself increasingly drawn to Duval, even as she suspects him of complicity in the plot against his half-sister. Ismae's convent upbringing has prepared her well for the intrigues and treachery of court but not for her feelings for Duval or for her growing sense that the convent's orders may not be as unequivocally right as she's always believed. As the political tension at court comes to a head, Ismae must choose between her training and her heart.

Honestly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Grave Mercy. The plot is nothing special, and Ismae is very much a character in the Katniss vein — she remains stubbornly oblivious to her own emotions and manages to navigate every perilous situation she finds herself in (and there are plenty) through a combination of good luck and natural skill. But the idea of a convent where young women who have no place in medieval society learn to help Death in his duties is engaging, and LaFevers gives it enough detail and nuance to make it believable. Some characters, such as the villainous Count d'Albret and the kind-hearted but determined Duchess Anne, border on caricatures, but they play their part in the story well enough. And Ismae's evolving understanding of what it really means to be "a daughter of death" is pretty fascinating. This one's a good addition to your young adult library.


Not-So-New Books: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
by Karen Foxlee

Sensible, science-minded Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard surprises herself more than anyone when she decided to rescue a mysterious trapped boy in the curious museum where her father is busy curating a sword exhibition. But there is something about the boy’s matter-of-fact yet fantastic tale that inspires Ophelia to be braver—and more adventurous—than she ever imagined, even in the days before her beloved mother passed away.

Like Disney’s hit FrozenOphelia and the Marvelous Boy riffs on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” Both modern adaptations play fast and loose with their original source—which makes sense, since Andersen’s meandering story with its old-fashioned morals seems firmly attached to the past. In Foxlee’s interpretation, the Snow Queen is pleasantly backstory-less—she’s just evil because she’s evil. The book follows two parallel stories: In the Marvelous Boy’s story, he tells Ophelia how he was chosen and prepared to defeat the Snow Queen—and how the Snow Queen had him locked away to prevent him from accomplishing his task. In the frame story, Ophelia faces ghostly girls, magical snow leopards, a terrifying misery bird, and her own fears as she makes her way through the museum’s corridors to rescue the boy and defeat the evil queen. Meanwhile, the queen—posing as a museum executive, has charmed Ophelia’s older sister Alice to achieve her sinister ends.

Ophelia is a likable enough heroine—and since she herself isn’t sure why she agrees to help the Marvelous Boy, I think the fact that it’s out-of-character for her works just fine. Ophelia’s grief over the loss of her mother feels realistic and heavy. The ending is predictable—but it is based on a fairy tale, and fairy tales are the literary equivalent of Patient Zero for predictable endings. Foxlee’s writing is gorgeous. I think this book is middle grade-ish, as far as reading levels go, and it’s wonderful to see such nuanced prose in a middle reader. It also makes for a lovely readaloud.


Not-So-New Books: Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
By Patricia C. Wrede, Caroline Stevermer
 

Reading level: High school

Once upon a time, Patricia Wrede (whom you may remember as the creator of the delightfully subversive Princess Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons) and Caroline Stevermer (who invented the College of Magics) decided it would be fun to write each other letters in character, as teenage girls in an Austen-ish England where magic is an everyday thing and you never know if the fellow you’re waltzing with is a marquis or a magician.

The result—Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot—is just as delightful as you’d expect. Cecelia, stuck at home in the country, writes to her cousin Kate, in London for her first season, about the mysterious goings-on with her neighbors (including a powerful magician) and recently discovered talent for magic, while Kate writes about the annoying Marquis who’s convinced her to pretend to be his fiancee in order to protect himself from a powerful sorceress’s evil plans. As their separate stories start to connect, Cecelia and Kate must cope with gentleman callers, purloined magic, too-strict relatives, unfortunate frocks, magical dangers, and more to achieve their happy endings.

Okay, yes, you could nitpick a few issues with this book. Because of the nature of epistolatory novels, some intriguing threads are left hanging. Kate and Cecelia have remarkably similar voices—which I think is especially interesting since they were written by two different authors. But how can you not love a book that includes passages like this:

Aunt Elizabeth and I called at the vicarage yesterday and spent a stimulating afternoon listening to the Reverend Fitzwilliam discourse on the Vanities of Society and the Emptiness of Worldly Pleasures. Aunt Elizabeth hung on every word, and we are to return and take tea on Thursday. I am determined to have the headache Thursday, if I have to hit myself with a rock to do it.

I mean, that’s delightful, no? So is the rest of the book. I suspect you’ll be glad you put it on your library list.


Summer Reading: Charmed Life

Reading level: Middle grades

Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.

Cat knows his sister Gwendolen is a wicked witch—but she’s the only family he has left, and he loves her furiously. When Gwendolen conspires with her black magic tutor to get taken into the home of the great enchanter Chrestomanci, the thoroughly non-magical Cat is forced to go with her. While his sister determines to make an impression on the unflappable Chrestomanci, by conjuring apparitions to interrupt dinner and bringing total darkness to the castle every two hours, Cat tries to get along with the Chrestomanci’s enchanter-in-training children and the rest of the curious family at Chrestomanci Castle. But Gwendolyn’s plans are darker than even Cat realizes, and he has to choose between loyalty to the sister he loves and doing the right thing.

Charmed Life is the first book in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, and it’s a delightful introduction to the world of the Chrestomanci, where magic is so ubiquitous that it needs a sort of President-of-All-Things-Magical to keep it all in check. (Alternatively, you could start with The Lives of Christopher Chance, which introduces the Chrestomanci when he was just a kid named Christopher Chant having magical dreams.) Diana Wynne Jones is a masterful world-builder, and with almost no exposition or explanatory passages, she manages to bring a complicated and nuanced world to life.

It’s easy to get a little frustrated at Cat’s devotion to Terrible Gwendolen, and he’d have to be unflinchingly loyal to miss some of the clues to just how awful his sister really is—much like Chrestomanci, we’re tempted to protect him from that knowledge, even though we know that realization is the only thing that will pull him out of Gwendolen’s shadow. Gwendolen is pleasantly villainous and makes no apologies for her villainy—her glee at successfully working evil magic is one of my favorite parts of the book.

Seeing another kind of wizards school—totally different from Hogwarts—is always fun. (I especially love the students’ magical battles over marmalade and toast.) But really, anything I say about it is going to seem pallid and flat once you start reading the actual book, which you should do, stat. You don’t have to go out and buy every single book Diana Wynne Jones has ever written after reading this, but I bet you’ll want to.

 

(My copy weighs in at 224 pages, meaning you can use Charmed Life to cross off “more than 200 pages” if you’re playing along with summer book bingo.)


Not-So-New-Books: The Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book
By Connie Willis
 

[I try to keep on top of interesting new books, but there are so many good boos out there, it seems a shame not to revisit some of my favorites now and then, just in case they’ve fallen off your radar and are just what you want for your library list.]

I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.

OK, so the premise of Connie Wilkes’ time travel books is absolutely brilliant: In the not-too-distant future, historians must get practical experience by traveling back in time to the period of their concentration. (“You didn’t become an historian by staying safely at home,” one character reminds the worried professor Dunworthy near the beginning of the book.) Most of Willis’ time travel history books take place in the 19th and 20th century, but The Doomsday Book sends history student Kivrin back to the 1300s.

This is a big deal, even for time-hopping Oxford academics. Some time periods are just inherently dangerous, and the Middle Ages—with the plague, disease, lack of general hygiene, bad food, and short life expectancy—are not safe places to travel, especially for a solo young woman. And there are issues with slippage—time travel is notoriously unreliable, and you can’t always be sure you’ll end up exactly when you want to be. But Kivrin is determined to be the first historian-traveler to the Middle Ages, and despite her professor’s concerns, she gets the go-ahead to check out a 1320 Christmas celebration in person.

But things don’t exactly go as planned. Kivrin discovers that she’s landed in 1348, with the Black Death just making its entrance in England. (She’s immunized, but none of the nice people who’ve taken her into their village are.) The big time discrepancy means that getting Kivrin back to her right time will be a challenge—but Dunsworthy is the only one who’s worried about Kivrin because fpresent-day Oxford has been hit by a plague of its own, and the town is quarantined. As Kivrin experiences life in the Middle Ages—realizing how little her years of obsessive research and study have taught her about actually living in medieval times—she faces the possibility that she may live out the rest of her life in 1300s England.

I love this book. Some people criticize the needless and rather boring drama Dunworthy goes through trying to first figure out what’s happened with Kivrin and then how to get her home, but I actually think that’s exactly how bureaucratic organizations tend to operate. (It’s true that Willis didn’t imagine cell phones, which might have sped up some communication, but in general I think all the lags and waiting and missed calls are totally believable.) But the best part of the book is the time travel bit, when we’re with Kivrin in Skendgate. Willis does a great job paining a medieval village as seen through Kivrin’s eyes, first as she grows to understand and know the people who have taken her in and then as she watches, heartbroken, as the plague kills villager after villager, leaving Kivrin alone and far, far from home. 

This is definitely a YA book—when a plague shows up, you know there’s going to be a lot of death, and some of the descriptions of the plague’s effects are pretty gruesome. But I think it would be a terrific accompaniment to a medieval history class or just an engaging read for teens who appreciate apocalyptic fiction (what’s more apocalyptic than a good plague?), science-fiction, or good historical fiction.