Category Archive:General

The concept of a boy whose life somehow turns into a video game that he must then figure out and master was a good one. The execution was . . . meh.

I just never did understand the rules of the game or where it came from. The story/day kept morphing from one game into another: Tetris, Donkey Kong, other games that I didn’t get the references to. Maybe that lack of understanding is due to the fact that I’m not a gamer. Bryan Biggins just wakes up to find himself inside a video game nightmare. He’s in the game without having chosen to play. And he doesn’t understand the rules. And nobody else at home or at his school or in his real life seems to notice the weirdness that is the game going on around them. Except when they do notice.

That’s the first problem. Some of Bryan’s teachers and friends are part of the game. There’s a hall monitor who is normally a nice person, but who begins to act like a video game villain on this particular day. Others see the game going on, but act as if it’s normal. Others don’t think it’s normal at all, or at least the way Bryan is acting is not normal. A few of the teachers are particularly mean, even sadistic, as they send Bryan on “missions” and manipulate his score in the game. Or maybe they don’t really control the scoring at all.

And Bryan himself does weird stuff. He decides that running on foot across a street with heavy traffic with his girl-he-wishes-were-his-girlfriend would be a good way to score points in the game. So he pulls her across, endangering her life. Really? These are real cars, real traffic, but Bryan treats it as a game. (I’m told this is an element in the 80’s(?) video game, Frogger?)

Anyway, Insert Coin to Continue is a classic video gamer’s dream. Since I’m not a classic video gamer, I didn’t quite get it.

The Memory Thief by Bryce Moore.

Benji and Kelly are fraternal twins whose parents are always arguing and on the edge of divorce. When Benji meets an old man who tells him that it is possible, although perhaps not wise, to steal people’s memories, and even give them to other people, Benji is determined to make his parents reconcile by removing their memories of why they hate each other. Memory theft, and memory sharing, and memory replacement all turn out to be more complicated and dangerous than Benji could have imagined, and when an evil Memory Thief turns up in Benji’s hometown and starts stealing people’s memories and making them into soulless, empty near-zombies, Benji has to bring his parents back together, learn to use his new memory manipulation skills for good, and stop the evil Genevieve.

Both the narration, by Benji, and the dialog, were awkward at times, with the narrator and the speakers using words and phrases that were too formal or too “writerly” for normal, everyday speech. Either this awkwardness got better as the story progressed, or I began to be able to ignore it. This story is also quite dark. Benji’s parents are very angry and bitter, and for a brief spell, Benji takes all of their angry memories into his own mind, causing him to be enraged and somewhat violent with those around him. At another point in the story Benji experiences a memory theft-induced despair that makes him sit in a stupor and tell himself that life is not worth living. In the end, Benji is not able to fix his family, but he does come to a resolution that might turn things around for them. And Benji himself is quite a hero throughout the story. This novel would give readers a lot to think about or talk about while providing a satisfying and absorbing time travel-ish adventure.

The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone.
Instead of being stuck in Groundhog Day, Haleigh Adams gets to repeat the last day of summer over and over with the ehelp of some magical paints and after she wishes for a “mulligan” on that last evening. At first, she thinks that reliving that last day of summer is great, especially since her friend Kevin’s G-mags had a stroke at the end of that very day. But when Haleigh wakes up every morning, it’s August 26th all over agin, and G-mags is fine, at least until nighttime.

But Haleigh finds that living the same day over and over, even if it does short circuit the bad things that are starting to go wrong, even if it does “save G-mags’ life, also stops the good things from coming to fruition. Haleigh’s mom may never be able to have a baby sister or brother to add to Haleigh’s family. Haleigh herself may never find out whether friendships can last after summer vacation. And even G-mags doesn’t really want time to stop. So how can Haleigh make time start moving again?

This one is written on a little bit simpler level than The Memory Thief or Time Traveling With a Hamster, and it’s not quite as dark as either of those books. However, the death of a loved friend or family member is a theme as well as Haleigh’s struggles over whether or not to deceive people in pursuit of a time re-start and her questions about how to sustain a friendship through time. It’s a good third to fifth grade read.

Time Traveling With a Hamster by Ross Welford.

“The word Geordie refers both to a native of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and to the speech of the inhabitants of that city. There are several theories about the exact origins of the term Geordie, but all agree it derives from the local pet name for George. It is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to the speech of the whole of the North East of England. Strictly speaking, however, Geordie should only refer to the speech of the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surrounding urban area of Tyneside.” ~British Library

Al Chaudhury, the protagonist and time traveller in this British import, keeps talking about his grandfather Byron’s “Geordie” accent and “Geordie” dialect. I had never heard this term before, and I thought since Al himself was British , but of Indian descent, that it had to do with Anglo-Indian speech or accents. But it turns out that Geordie-speak just refers to the speech of people form a very specific locality, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. So I learned something.

Al’s story, my favorite of the three books featured in this post, is again about memory and time travel. On his twelfth birthday, Al receives two gifts: a hamster and a letter from his deceased dad. The letter informs Al that it might be possible for him to use his dad’s time machine to go back in time and prevent his father’s death. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for Al to even get to the place where his dad’s time machine is waiting, not to mention the difficulty of manipulating past events to change the future.

Al must do a lot of things that are wrong—breaking and entering, stealing, lying, arson–to make things “right” in the past and save his dad’s life. He, of course, tells himself that he is doing wrong in order to accomplish a greater good. This end-justifies-the-means is a theme in all of these books. Is it OK to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate other people’s minds and memories in order to achieve a greater good or save someone’s life or make things right after you have messed them up with your original magical manipulations? I would say that all three stories come to much the same conclusion: no, it’s not okay. But Time Traveling With a Hamster is the most ambiguous of the three since Al is actually able to change the past and make things better for himself and his family. And that ability to change the past and the future makes this quote from Grandpa Byron, found near the beginning of the story, rather poignant:

“Life, Al, is such a wonderful gift that we should open our minds to every possible moment and cherish the memory of those moments. Because people change. Places change. Everything changes, but our memories do not. Accept life the way it is, Al. That’s the way to be happy.”

But Al doesn’t accept his father’s death, and in the end, he manages to make everyone happy. Sort of. Time Traveling With a Hamster is strong, well-plotted time travel novel, with an ethnic Indian/British (Punjabi) setting that gives the novel a distinctive flavor. This novel for middle grade readers unfortunately includes some profanity and one unnecessary reference to a teenage character’s virginity or lack thereof.

There was a brief time when I was young that I went through a reading binge of Indian captive narratives. These stories, both fictional and nonfiction, were quite popular back in the day. Nonfiction narrative memoirs of people, usually girls, who were captured by Indians and later escaped or were rescued, were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular. And fiction novels for children, sometimes based on the earlier nonfiction memoirs, were popular in the mid-twentieth century. These kinds of stories came to be regarded with suspicion and even disdain, since the descriptions of Native Americans and Native American culture are all from a European American point of view. The Native Americans in these stories are alien, strange, and often cruel and ignorant.

All that to say, K.A. Holt’s Red Moon Rising reads like an Indian captivity novel, but the “Indians” are the Cheese, natives of a moon that Rae Darling and her frontier farming family have colonized. The Cheese are foreign, cruel, and ugly in the eyes of the colonists. Rae and her family are tradition-bound, conservative, and blind to the possibility of peace and understanding between themselves and the Cheese. The Cheese capture Rae and adopt her into their “tribe”, and Rae must decide whether to remain loyal to the colonists or to became a part of the Cheese, whose culture is in many ways freer and more indigenous and friendly to the Red Moon than Rae’s colonist culture.

It’s interesting to think that perhaps Ms. Holt wanted to write an Indian captivity novel and deal with all the issues of cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding inherent in that plot, but instead of doing the onerous research that writing about a particular Native American culture and place would involve, she was able to simply make up a people and a culture, the Cheese, and impose on them whatever characteristics and morals were most convenient for her narrative. Did she do a good job of world-building and of showing the difficulties and advantages of crossing from one culture to another? For the most part, yes, although Rae certainly has an easier time accepting some things, like forced training in fighting and war, and a harder time accepting others, like native Cheese boots, than I would think she might.

Despite the criticisms of these Indian, or Native American, captivity narratives and novels, I think that stories like these can serve as a bridge to help children (and adults) understand and see the virtues as well as the drawbacks in other cultures. And a science fiction/fantasy story like Red Moon Rising can be even more helpful in giving readers a way to “see both sides” and reserve judgment, since elements of the story can easily be generalized and applied to many different cultural encounters and confrontations.

Despite the sometimes heavy-handed emphasis on female empowerment and religious stereotypes, Red Moon Rising is a good adventure story with some thought-provoking themes. By the way, warning, the book is quite heavy on the violence, blood, and gore, too, so more sensitive readers beware. And, for the sake of comparison, here are some of those captivity narratives and novels that I enjoyed as a young teen and a few that have been published since then:

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski.
The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline B. Cooney.
Valiant Captive by Erick Berry.
Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare.
The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter.
Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker by Carolyn Meyer.
White Captives by Evelyn Sibley Lampman.
Wait For Me, Watch For Me, Eula Bee by Patricia Beatty.
Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
Beaded Moccasins: the Story of Mary Campbell by Linda Durrant.
I Am Regina by Sally Keenh.
Trouble’s Daughter: the Story of Susanna Hutchinson, Indian Captive by Katherine Kirkpatrick.
Standing in the Light: the Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan by Mary Pope Osborne.

If you’re interested in reading more about this sort of story, its origins and uses, here are a couple of articles I found interesting:

Gimme Shelter by Janet at Dear Author, about romance captivity novels and memoirs.
Dark Places: the Tradition of Captivity Narratives by Gina Showalter in the NYT.

From Kit Carson, Trailblazer and Scout by Shannon Garst:

“The homemade crib in the snug log cabin of the Linsey Carsons was seldom empty. When on Christmas Eve of 1809 the thin wail of a newborn babe rose from the battered cradle, the little cabin was already fairly bulging with Carson offspring, and the birth of another baby occasioned little excitement.

Linsey Carson, who had to stoop when he went through a door, bent over the crib and made clucking noises at his youngest. ‘He ‘pears to be a mite runty,’ he commented. ‘Reckon we’d best give him a good-sized name to grow up to.’

So the child was christened ‘Christopher,’ an already illustrious name to which the child was to add further glory. However, his physical stature never grew to fit the name, so the name was shortened to ‘Kit’ to fit the boy. Always his father referred to him as ‘the runt of the litter,’ which designation never failed to make the boy cringe inside as though a burning iron had been thrust through his heart. All of his nine brothers were strapping fellows well over six feet when grown to manhood, but Kit never attained even medium height. Yet of the fourteen Carson offspring he was the only one to make the family name famous. Runty, sandy-haired and with pale eyelashes fringing blue eyes, he remained to the end of his days undistinguished in appearance, yet the germ of greatness slumbered in that undersized but sturdy body.”

The runt of the litter who grows up to be the greatest. It’s an old story that never grows stale in the telling. From David, the youngest of his family, who nevertheless kills the giant Goliath and later becomes King of Israel, to Peter the Great, youngest son of Alexey I and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina, to fictional youngest sons who rise to greatness, there is a something about seeing the “underdog” become the hero that appeals to our sense of rightness and hope.

Perhaps it’s a little like the true story of the baby, born in poverty and obscurity, who became the mighty and resurrected King.

“Stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives…. They crack open hearts; they open minds…. We could change the world if we told the right story.” ~Brian Doyle

SatReviewbutton

Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

From Tales of the Crusades by Olivia Coolidge:

“Two days before Christ’s Mass, a minstrel wandered into a small town on the outskirts of Vienna. He did not sing in the marketplace, being French-speaking and in any case superior to the ragged crew thumping tabors who were already performing here and there and begging for pennies. This man was warmly dressed, though stained with travel; and he carried a viol on his back, which proclaimed he had some skill. Though he did not my any means look like a court musician, he probably at least could sing for his supper in small baronial castles whose rough owners cared less for music than for novelty.

It was market day when he appeared, strolling casually up to a crowd which was gathering to listen to a man preaching a new crusade. The speaker was a hoarse-voiced fellow, one-eyed and villainous looking, who had taken the Cross, he said, on account of his sins.”

The minstrel in this story turns out to be a spy, looking for King Richard of England who is late coming home from the Crusades. He goes to the court of Duke Leopold, to ask questions and perform for the nobility.

“Duke Leopold was holding Christmas court at Vienna with mumming plays and games of blindman’s bluff or forfeits. Presents were being given and received with gay flirtation. Dishes were brought into the hall preceded by trumpeters and outlined in flickering brandy. Jugglers, minstrels, and fools entertained the company, the court performers striving to add to their repertoire, lest it become stale. These last were not best pleased at the arrival of the minstrel, who had bought himself gay clothing with gold ducats he had concealed in the lining of his viol case. To the lords and ladies a French-speaking man was especially welcome, for the lays of chivalry had their birth in France.”

Read Ms. Coolidge’s Tales of the Crusades to find out what happens next at this medieval Christmas celebration.

Olivia Coolidge was born and grew up in England, but she came to the United States as a young woman and stayed to teach school and eventually to marry an American. As the daughter of an Oxford professor and an Oxford graduate herself, Ms. Coolidge saw the value of a classical education. Her books, about Greek and Roman heroes and other historical figures, are a classical education in and of themselves.
(Information about Olivia Coolidge taken mostly from Jan Bloom’s bibliographic resource, Who Should We Then Read?.)

Pedro, The Angel of Olvera Street by Leo Politi was published in 1946. It’s little picture book that tells the story of Pedro who lives on Olvera Street in Los Angeles with his grandfather. Pedro’s grandfather plays the violin, and Pedro “sings like an angel.”

This talent gets Pedro a special part in the Christmas posadas procession:

This year Manuel thought of something that would make the procession even more beautiful. He had heard Pedro sing and he had heard people say, “Pedro sings like an angel.” So he said:
“We must have an angel to lead La Posada.”
He was so pleased with his idea that he hurried to Tomaso’s presto and asked him to make two little red wings for Pedro.

Leo Politi was an Italian American author and illustrator. He was born in Fresno, California in 1908, but he grew up from the age of seven in Italy, near Milan. At the age of 22, he left Italy and returned to California. Mr. Politi began his career as an artist in Los Angeles on Olvera Street, painting and sketching alongside Mexican American artisans for the tourists and other buyers who came through the Latino part of the city. Mr. Politi began to write books as well as illustrate them with his first book, Panchito or Little Pancho, published in 1938. Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street was Mr. Politi’s second book, and it gave and still gives children who discover it a wonderful appreciation for the traditional Catholic and Mexican Christmas customs of Las Posadas, the piñata, and the music and food of a Mexican American Christmas.

Ten year old Lottie Bromley and her best friend Kitty McLaughlin are inseparable, friends in the midst of war and deprivation in 1940 Bristol, England. However, when Lottie’s father’s research into the possibilities and uses of time travel does separate the girls, Lottie is determined to find Kitty again—and ask forgiveness for having deserted her friend in a crisis.

Time travel is always a tempting story premise, but tricky to handle. It all sort of becomes mind-bending and gives the reader (and the author, presumably) a headache, as in this epic discussion from LOST:

In Once Was a Time, one character’s idea is that one can never travel back in time, only forward, since you can’t change the past because it would change the present and the future too much. Another possible “rule” of time travel is that you can’t time travel to a time during your own lifetime since that would make two of the same person exist in the same time. OF course, these are all theoretical “rules” since Lottie’s father is just researching time travel, not actually engaging in it. And then danger comes in the form of a kidnapping/hostage situation, and Lottie does see a time portal and get the chance to flee into it. She doesn’t know when or where she’s going, but she ends up in Sutton, Wisconsin on August 20, 2013.

A great many pages after that crisis time travel episode are filled with Lottie’s observations on the differences between England in 1940 and Wisconsin in 2013. I found these cultural and time period differences to be fascinating, but I don’t know if most children will agree. There’s also a subplot/theme about bullying and fitting in with the right crowd that may relate to kid concerns, but conversely, didn’t really engage me. So I liked the historical and time travel aspects, and others may get something else out of the same book.

Whatever draws you in, Lottie’s story about friendship and forgiveness and the power of choosing to be a friend is a story worth reading. The fact that Lottie finds a safe haven and a new friend in the library is just extra sauce to an already good stew of a story.

“It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person’s life come disguised as ordinary days.” ~opening sentence of The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd.

Key to Extraordinary is a lovely, luminescent, literary lodestone of a novel. Okay, so my attempt to write in the style of Natalie Lloyd isn’t exactly great, but this story is beautiful. It’s got heart, and a vivid setting, the Boneyard Cafe in Blackbird Hollow, Tennessee, and a compelling plot, all about buried treasure and finding one’s destiny and saving the cafe.

“Fear is just a flashlight that helps you find your courage.”

The narrator of the story, Emma, is the youngest in a long line of Wildflower Women who fulfilled their destinies by doing something extraordinary to make the world better. Emma is waiting to have her own Destiny Dream and find out how she fits into the heritage of her ancestors.

“You don’t have to go looking for stories across the world. You only have to look out your window.”

Embedded in the story are lots of what I call “nuggets of middle grade wisdom” —proverbs, maxims, and bits of truth that don’t sound too preachy when they’re part of the story. I love that middle grade authors are “allowed” to include these little tidbits of advice and admonition in their stories, and when it’s done well, it makes the story so much more rich and meaningful for me to read.

“Believe your words have power. And use them.”

As Emma goes on a crusade to save her family cafe from the evil, rich developer, Warren Steele, she learns more about the meaning of friendship and family and courage. Yes, the mean developer who is about to take the family business is a trite and over-used plot device, but go with it anyway. I just had so much fun spending time with Emma and her ex-boxer grandmother and her chef-brother and her friends, Cody Belle Chitwood and Earl Chance. The story felt authentically Tennessean and country and as one reviewer wrote (negatively), sort of like a Hallmark special. But I like Hallmark movie specials.

“Sometimes even doing the right thing will leave you with scars. But beauty comes from ashes, too.”

There are so many good quotes from this book that I’ll just leave you with a few more. I’m including these here because there are so many, but look for a second installment of Middle Grade Book Wisdom soon with more quotations from this book and other 2016 middle grade fiction books. Collecting these wisdom quotes is a sort of hobby of mine.

“Everything wonderful is possible.”

“Some books are so special that you never forget where you were the first time you read them.”

“Every lifetime, no matter how long it lasts, is a gift. And to love, and be loved, even by one person during your lifetime . . . that is a treasure no one can take from you.”

I nominated this debut novel for the Cybils Awards, without having read it myself, because Gary Schmidt, author of The Wednesday Wars and Okay For Now, said it was “a journey that every reader needs to go on.” It wasn’t until I read the author’s note at the end of the book that I realized that the inspiration for the story was the The Lais of Marie de France, in particular one story from that collection of twelfth century tales, the story of “Bisclavret”. And that source means something to me because Eldest Daughter, who is a French medieval scholar, wrote her doctoral dissertation and several other academic papers about aspects of the works of Marie de France. So, a serendipitous connection made this middle grade “not-a-werewolf” novel even more meaningful and fun for me.

The book is about a boy named Raul who lives at One of Our Kind boarding school. When the other kids go home on the weekends, Raul takes to the woods and changes into a wolf. But he’s “not a werewolf” because “werewolves are humans who got cursed. I’m not cursed. They have unibrows, and is you cut their skin you’ll see fur, not blood. Two fingertips fit between my eyebrows. I bleed. Werewolves attack people in the woods and eat them. I wouldn’t do that.” Raul is a boy/wolf, but he is determined to keep the woods and the school parts of his double life separated.

However, when a new boy in school also experiences the “woods magic”, and when Tuffman, the sadistic gym teacher becomes involved in Raul’s double life, too, Raul is forced to try to figure out how to reconcile the two parts of his dual nature. This novel is not for everybody. It’s weird. Raul thinks of himself as “not a monster”, but definitely a “weirdo”. Raul also doesn’t talk very much, and his thoughts are somewhat sophisticated and intelligent, but his voice as narrator is characterized by short, choppy sentences and fragments of sentences. He’s alone and a tough guy with a protective nature. And all of those aspects of his personality land him in trouble.

A certain type of kid might identify with Raul and with his story, might wish that they, too, could shape shift into a wolf on the weekends (or anytime). Raul’s wolf life doesn’t take up much space in the story; most of the real plot of the novel takes place in the human weekdays. And I guess that’s appropriate because in the end Raul is a boy who is learning to be human, not a wolf. I enjoyed reading the story of how Raul finds his family and his words and his vocation.