Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

Sonya Hartnett’s Children of the King feeds into some of my fondest fascinations:

British history, especially kings and queens and all that jazz.

World War II stories about child evacuees.

Crumbling castles and the ghosts that inhabit them.

Old English houses full of old stuff.

Mysteries of history.

Homeschooling and storytelling.

Themes of courage and small victories and war and peace.

Cecily and Jeremy and their mother have come to the north of England to live with their Uncle Peregrine while London is under siege from Hitler’s bombers. Since Uncle Peregrine live in a big manor house, they decide that it would be only fair for them to take in an extra child evacuee from London. So May comes to live with them. But when Cecily and May find two mysterious boys hiding in the nearby ruins of Snow Castle, they beg Uncle Peregrine to tell them the history of the castle. And he does, even though “its story is as hard as winter” and “cruel” and “scary” and “long”. “Unfit for childish ears.”

Aye, there’s the rub. Although this novel had me enthralled as an adult with my particular fascinations and interests, and although I think it might very well have engaged my interest as a middle school or high school student, it may also very well be “unfit for childish ears.” The horror and unfairness and violence of war are a major topic for discussion, as it surely was in those times when war was so very near and terrible. The adults in the story are not perfect and neither are the children. All of them make annoying, and sometimes stupid or even dangerous, choices. And the history story part of the novel is meant as a mirror or an analogy for the events that are taking place in England in 1940 as war calls for sacrifices that are unfair and horrific and as even children are caught up in a quest for power and dominion that isn’t their fault or their responsibility.

I really loved this book, but you might want to take Charlotte’s review as well as my reservations under consideration before you read it or recommend it to your favorite young reader. I wish I could discuss the history mystery that forms a part of this book with you, but that would be a spoiler, sort of. Suffice it to say that particular slice of history is one of my fascinations, too.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge

Each tick of the clock brings chaos closer.

Christopher Edge . . . lives in Gloucester (England) where he spends most of his time in the local library dreaming up stories.” ~from the author blurb in the back of the book

Mr. Edge must have some imagination–or else he’s experienced the bite of a dreamweaver spider and thereby descended into madness. I was just about tested beyond the limits of my ability to suspend disbelief as I read Five Minutes to Midnight, the story of thirteen year old orphan heiress and author, Penelope Tredwell and her adventures in and around London, especially Bedlam, in the last month of the last year of the nineteenth century.

Penelope is an intrepid young heroine, and she needs all the courage and intelligence she can muster since the villain of the story is a murderous arachnologist, Lady Cambridge, with a cluster of dreamweaver spiders forming the arsenal she plans to use to bring her the power to rule the world. (Insert evil cackle.)

Wilbur’s friend Charlotte notwithstanding, spiders are often symbols of evil in literature: I think Tolkien in particular had an aversion to arachnids. The mythological Arachne herself was turned into a spider by the goddess Athena as a punishment for her arrogance. (Check out this Literary Spiders quiz on Goodreads.)The power and influence of the dreamweaver spiders in Twelve Minutes to Midnight is borderline unbelievable. But if you are intrigued by the thought of a gothic, penny dreadful*-type middle grade story with a young female heroine, Twelve Minutes to Midnight might just fit the bill.

There are two more books in the series of the adventures of Penelope Tredwell, Shadows of the Silver Screen and The Black Crow Conspiracy. Shadows of the Silver Screen is due to be published in the U.S. by Albert Whitman in September, 2014. The Black Crow Conspiracy is, for some strange reason, available now in a Kindle ebook edition, but has no scheduled U.S. publication date at Amazon for the “real” book edition.

*Penny dreadful: A penny dreadful was a type of British fiction publication in the 19th century that usually featured lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing one (old) penny. The term, however, soon came to encompass a variety of publications that featured cheap sensational fiction, such as story papers and booklet “libraries”. The penny dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and were aimed at young working class males.

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Futuristic, post-apocalyptic science fiction that’s very loosely based on or inspired by Jane Austen’s novel of manners and thwarted love, Persuasion. Eliot North, the main character, is a girl who, like Ann Eliott in Persuasion has chosen duty over love and passion. As she is unavoidably throw together with the man she rejected over four years previously to the opening of our story, Elliot must decide how to guard her heart and remain true to her principles of loving and caring for the innocent and helpless.

There is, as I said, a science fiction apocalypse aspect to this story: the world is living in the aftermath of genetic experimentation gone awry, and the Luddites, who rejected the genetic experiments, are the only ones who are holding things together and providing for the Reduced, the mentally challenged victims of the experimentation. Elliot is a Luddite. Some characters, called Posts, have transcended the Reduction of their ancestors, but the Luddites still treat the Posts like Reduced slaves.

What I liked best about this novel was the Jane Austen tie-in. It made me want to go back and re-read Persuasion. I also liked Elliot as a character, although she could be remarkably obtuse at times. In fact, all of the characters in the novel had their moments when they should have seen what I as the reader could see clearly, but they didn’t. And sometimes, in a way I can’t exactly put my finger on, the characters jumped to slightly erroneous conclusions or unusual interpretations of events that didn’t seem to be warranted by the information given in the book. It made the novel skew very juvenile, maybe middle grade even, definitely YA rather than adult.

Maybe the problem was that Elliot North and her rejected suitor Malakai Wentforth just aren’t adult in the same way that Ann Elliot and her erstwhile love Frederick Wentworth are grown-up and mature in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Elliot and Malakai are only eighteen, and they act emotionally like sixteen year olds or younger. None of these issues spoiled what was essentially a good story, but they were there nagging at the back of my mind as I read.

Rainbow Rowell and the World with No Rules

I plead guilty. I am a prude, a moralist, a prig. And I am so tired of living in world without rules. I am so tired of reading about a world without rules, watching movies and TV shows in which there is nothing that is off limits (except rules themselves). Yes, I know we need grace; I need grace the way I need air, food, and water. I survive and live by the grace of God. But we also need Law. Boundaries. Some sort of framework to live by, to measure by, something besides my own emotions and my own weakness. Something to which to apply the grace that God so freely offers.

And what has this rant to do with the latest, greatest, most popular YA fiction author of 2013 (if I am to judge by all the 2013 best-of lists that include one or both of the books she published this past year)? Rainbow Rowell is the author of Eleanor and Park, a high school love story, and Fangirl, a freshman year in college love story. I read Eleanor and Park first, and I’ll admit I liked it. The lady knows how to tell a story and especially how to create characters that shine. Eleanor is a fat girl with a dysfunctional family. Park is a Korean American boy with a fully functional family, but he lives life at the mercy of school bullies and of his own insecurities about being short and small and sort of geeky (or nerdy, I can never remember the difference). The slow build-up to romance between the two outsiders was fun to read and well-written. Then, wham! The two sixteen year olds did whatever it was they did in the backseat of a car (I skimmed). Oh, why did we have to have that part? Why couldn’t Park just say that he thought Eleanor was beautiful but he respected her and didn’t want to take advantage of her vulnerability, or something? I got a little tired, but as I said, I skimmed.

Then, I read Fangirl, different plot, different age group, similar characters. There’s a girl, Cath, with a dysfunctional family who’s closed off and vulnerable at the same time. There’s a guy, Levi, from a Baptist family, who’s sweet and caring and giving to the point of saccharinity. But Ms. Rowell reins in the sweet so that Levi is just that, adorable and no more. Fangirl feels for a while as if it could be about the consequences of living without any moral framework. In fact, Cath’s twin sister, Wren, messes up big time because no one has ever told her what the rules are or expected her to live by any rules at all (absent mother, mentally ill father). But Levi and Cath get along just fine without any reference to religion or morality or . . . anything. All that stuff is so . . . old-fashioned. Levi mentions that his mom is involved in church and attends a “prayer circle”, but that whole world is dismissed lightly and quickly as parental quirkiness. Cath’s and Wren’s dad tries to make some rules for Wren, the out of control daughter, but the whole stern parent thing comes out of nowhere. I can’t imagine any eighteen year old who has been as neglected as Wren and Cath have been listening to the lecture Wren’s dad gives or adhering to his sudden burst of regulations and injunctions.

So we come back to a world without authority. Without a moral framework. Why is it wrong for one of the characters in the novel to plagiarize? Because Cath doesn’t like it? Why is OK for Cath and her roommate to badmouth and make fun of all the freshmen in the cafeteria? Because it makes them feel better about themselves and because they’re witty when they do it? Why is it wrong for Wren to get drunk every weekend and drink herself into oblivion? Because it feels bad? Why is it right for Cath and Levi to make out in his bedroom? Because it feels good? Why do I want to read details of these make-out sessions? Because . . . I can’t really think of any good reasons. (I skimmed . . . again.)

I agree with this essay by Shannon Hale, in which she argues that YA novels should be written for teen readers, not adults who just want the teenagers in the books to hurry up and grow up. I’m not advocating for the teens in this book to grow up already and have their worldview and ethics all figured out. I just want them to have something, preferably Christianity, but something, to push against, to wrestle with, and possibly to grow into. All they have in these books is empty air and secularist posing. It’s sad and it makes me tired, no matter how good the writing may be. And I fear for our kids who are going to be even more jaded and exhausted with the shadow boxing and with the vacuum of virtue and moral standards before they ever get to be adults.

This post is not so much a review of the books as it is a reflection on the world we live in. Read the books and see what you think. I will admit that I will be thinking about Eleanor and Park and Cath and Levi and Wren for a long time. I would be praying for them if they were real people. I’m saddened to think that they probably are real people.

The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George, author of seventeen mysteries about Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, has placed her first young adult novel on an island, Whidbey Island, near Seattle, Washington. The island setting gives the novel a claustrophobic feel, while the main character’s ability to hear “whispers” of other people’s thoughts makes it eerie and somewhat Hitchcockian in another way.

Becca King and her mom are on the run from Becca’s stepfather who used Becca’s special “mind-reading” abilities to enrich himself. However, now that both Becca and her mom know that the stepfather is a murderer as well as a thief, their lives are in danger. So mom leaves Becca with a friend on Whidbey Island, while she goes on to Canada to make a place for the two of them.

The story was compelling, but there were issues. Maybe because this book is the beginning of a series(?) about Becca and her mom and Whidbey Island, there were lots of unanswered questions and plot and character developments that felt unfinished and just weird somehow. Yet, I’m not sure I care enough about Becca and her new island friends to find the next book in the series and read it.

The “whispers” that Becca hears are chaotic fragments of thought that also give the book a weird vibe. I couldn’t figure out half the time who was thinking or what they were thinking about, and I didn’t see how Becca could make much sense of her sixth sense, either. The ability to hear thought whispers certainly doesn’t give Becca much insight into the people she meets on the island, nor does her ability help her to figure out who injured her new friend, Derric, and put him into a coma. Or was it an accident?

I prefer Ms. George’s Inspector Lynley mysteries, and I found the fragmented whispers of thought in this book annoying and unnecessary.

The Bronte Sisters by Catherine Reef

The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef.

Brief, indeed. Emily was 30 years old in December 1848 when she died of tuberculosis. Anne died of tuberculosis a few months later in May 1849. She was 29 years old. Their older brother Branwell had predeceased them by a few months (September 1848). He was 31 years old.

Charlotte wrote: “A year ago–had a prophet warned me how I should stand in June 1849, had he foretold the autumn, the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering to be gone through—I should have thought–this can never be endured. It is over. Branwell—Emily—Anne are gone like dreams.”

Charlotte managed to outlive her siblings by a few years. She died at the age of 39—probably of tuberculosis. Oh, and by the way, the Brontes had two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died when they were young. Want to guess what killed them?

Therefore, one thing I learned from reading this tragic, true story of Victorian genius was that tuberculosis was (is?) really, really deadly, and I’m glad I didn’t live back then, before antibiotics. And I hope I don’t live to see a resurgence of TB, post-effective antibiotics.

I’ve alway found the Bronte family to be fascinating, even before I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I read a different book when I was just an elementary school student called The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke. Ms. Clarke’s fantasy about the Brontes’ toy soldiers who come to life and try to return to the Bronte home in Yorkshire won the Carnegie Medal in 1962 (British title The Twelve and the Genii). Anyway, I loved that book, and it’s the story about the Brontes as children and about the stories they told to each other that first got me interested in the Bronte family.

I didn’t actually read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with understanding and enjoyment until I was in college. And I also read Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte when I was in college. What an amazing family! Even Branwell, with his Heathcliff/Mr. Rochester/Byron alcoholic character, hold a certain fascination.

This biography by Catherine Reef was more than decent, and I did learn a lot about the Bronte family. The book mentions the toy soldiers, and the friendship between Charlotte and Mrs. Gaskell, and several other details that were familiar to me. I also gleaned some new information. For instance, I had forgotten that Charlotte married, after Emily, Anne, and Branwell died. And I never knew how very dissolute Branwell was.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure Ms. Reef really understood the Christian faith of Charlotte and Anne, and perhaps Emily, although Emily seems to have been more private and perhaps less orthodox. She writes several times about how “religious” Anne was and about how Charlotte’s faith was “unshaken.” But their faith comes across in the book as a kind of quaint Victorian notion, rather than a real conviction and solace in grief. The author does quote Charlotte’s reaction to atheist Harriet Maritneau’s apologetic for atheism, Letters on the Law of Man’s Social Nature and Development. Charlotte wrote in response to Ms. Martineau’s lack of faith in God:

“The strangest thing is that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank, to welcome this unutterable desolation as a pleasant state of freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do it if he could?”

Still, if this biography doesn’t capture the fullness of the Brontes’ faith, it does give a reasonably detailed picture of the life and times of this remarkable family suited to readers age 12 and up. After reading Ms. Reef’s biography, I am wanting to read Charlotte Bronte’s other novels, Villette and Shirley, and Anne’s two books, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I’d also like to re-read Wuthering Heights and The Return of the Twelves, but not until after Cybils season is over.

Love, Chickens, and a Taste of Peculiar Cake by Joyce Magnin

I would like to bake Penny a cake. A fullness of time cake. Chocolate with chocolate frosting, rich and full. ~from Wilma Sue’s notebook

Wilma Sue has come from Miss Daylily’s Home for Children to live with retired missionary sisters, Naomi and Ruth Beedlemeyer. Her caseworker warns her, “Just one infraction and back you go to the orphanage.” Can Wilma Sue manage to behave herself, tame her imagination, and trust the sisters? Will the sisters trust her, or will they betray her trust and believe the lies that other people tell about Wilma Sue? And what is the secret ingredient that makes Ruth’s cakes that she bakes for all the neighbors, so very special—almost magical?

This middle grade novel pokes along rather slowly at first, but the pace picks up toward the middle. And there’s a slam-bang, suspenseful finish. Wilma Sue is an endearing character, as are the missionary sisters from Malawi with whom she comes to live. Ruth bakes special cakes for those who need an extra touch of grace or compassion or just plain neighborliness. Naomi stays busy volunteering at the homeless shelter and with various other charities. Wilma Sue’s job is to feed the chickens. As the story progresses, Wilma Sue forms a bond with these rather peculiar and unorthodox sisters, as she tries to figure out just what it is that makes the cakes that Ruth bakes so magical and what gives them healing properties.

There was something small and winsome and charming about this story. I became involved in the plight and the journey of Wilma Sue, almost in spite of myself, just as Wilma Sue is beguiled into the lives of the sisters. Oh, and Ruth sings hymns as she bakes her cakes. How could I resist?

From Joyce Magnin’s blog: “Children are still willing to believe in magic even though they know it’s not real. I hope that through the use of magic in my books children will also learn something about faith. Because what is faith but believing in things unseen.”

I am, by the way, a litle confused about the title of this book. I read it the way I have it in my post title: Love, Chickens and a Taste of Peculiar Cake. Amazon has it as Cake: Love, Chickens and a Taste of Peculiar. Ms. Magnin just calls the book “Cake” at her blog, so maybe Amazon is right. But I think I prefer my syntax, maybe.

Cake: Love, Chickens and a Taste of Peculiar or Love, Chickens, and a Taste of Peculiar Cake is shortlisted for the INSPY, Literature for Young People award.

Failstate by John W. Otte

“John W. Otte leads a double life. By day he’s a Lutheran minister. By night, he writes weird stories.”

Failstate is kind of weird. Robin Laughlin aka Failstate and Robin’s brother Ben aka Gauntlet are both unlicensed superheroes. Failstate is a “cognit” who can mess with the power grid. The theory is that Failstate’s super-power can create “a potential failstate within covalent bonds at a molecular level.” Gauntlet is a “strapper”, a hero with lots of muscle.

Both of the brothers are competing in a reality TV show. The winner gets a real superhero license if he or she is voted best superhero in the show. Unfortunately, Robin/Failstate is pretty sure that the winner is not going to be him.

Soon, real life and real crime collide with the fantasy crime competition on TV, and Failstate must decide how to avenge his friend’s death, whom to trust, and how much protecting his secret identity is worth. Is it worth more lives? What if he has to lose the competition and his secrets to gain his ultimate goal, the protection of innocent citizens?

Failstate was just nominated as a finalist for the Christy Awards in the category of Young Adult Books, along with Child of the Mountains by Marilyn Sue Shank and Interrupted: A Life Beyond Words by Rachel Coker. I think Failstate is a worthy competitor, both the character in the book and the novel in the Christy Awards.

The Drowned Vault by N.D. Wilson

About the first book in this fantasy series by N.D. Wilson, I wrote: The Dragon’s Tooth by N.D. Wilson. Too much action and it moved way too fast for me. I think there was a sub-text that I just didn’t get, and I think Mr. Wilson is too smart for my Very Little Brain.

Reading the second book in the series helped my little brain a little bit, but I really should just wait until all of the (three?) books in the Ashtown Burials series are out and then I could read them all together. I’m pretty sure my little brain would thank me for not asking it to remember a book I read over a year ago and put it together with a book that I’m reading now that demands a lot of thought and remembering on its own merits.

Anyway, The Dragon’s Tooth is “the only object in the world capable of killing the long-lived transmortals, and Phoenix (the bad guy) has been tracking them down one-by-one, and murdering them.” Cyrus and Antigone Smith had the dragon’s tooth in the first book, but they lost it to the bad guys, and now almost everyone is mad at them. Transmortal Gilgamesh is especially angry, and he and his fellow transmortals have come to Ashtown to demand that the Order of Brendan offer protection or justice or something. So Antigone and Cyrus end up on the run from the Order, from Gilgamesh, from Phoenix, and from other evil characters who are out to destroy everything and take over the world.

If that paragraph doesn’t explain what the Ashtown Burial books are all about (and it doesn’t), then maybe this book trailer will help.

For what it’s worth, I like the books, but I think I’ll like them better when the series is complete.

Code of Silence by Tim Shoemaker

Living a Lie Comes With a Price.

This thriller is book with a moral, but it didn’t feel preachy to me, just real. Three teens–Cooper, Hiro, and Gordy—witness a robbery and attempted murder. Because Cooper and his family are threatened by the robbers and because they have reason to believe that at least one of the robbers might be a bad cop, the three decide on a”code of silence.” They won’t tell anyone about what they saw: not their parents, not their teachers, not their other friends, and not the police.

The rest of the story show the outworking and results of this decision. Although the moral of the story is “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, it’s never presented as an easy option. The truth is that it’s not always easy to tell the truth. And our motives for many of our decisions are often mixed at best. If I lie to protect myself and others, is it mostly for myself or the others? If I tell one lie, will it become easier and easier to tell more lies? Why do people lie, and how hard is it to disentangle oneself from a web of lies? What do lies told to others do to the trust between the friends who share in the deception?

Hiro is a little too hard on Cooper sometimes throughout the book. She rails at him over and over to end the code of silence before it destroys their friendship and puts them in the very danger they’re trying to avoid. But she agreed to the code in the first place, and she can end it anytime. Instead, she blames Cooper and tries to make him feel totally responsible for the trio’s joint decision. That aspect of the relationships in the novel felt wrong to me, somehow.

But overall, Code of Silence was an exciting middle grade novel that asked all the right questions—and gave some solid answers.