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The Silver Pencil by Alice Dalgliesh

A 1945 Newbery Honor book, The Silver Pencil really isn’t a children’s book at all. It’s more of a young adult fiction book in the tradition of L.M. Montgomery’s sequels to Anne of Green Gables or her Emily of New Moon books, or maybe more like Little Women, the book that The Silver Pencil alludes to and depends upon for its framing device. (The main character, Janet, is a fan of Little Women, and hence of the United States, a country she has never seen until she comes to New York to study in her late teens, except in the pages of Alcott’s inspirational book.)

The Silver Pencil is also quite the autobiographical novel:

“Born October 7, 1893 in Trinidad, British West Indies, to John and Alice (Haynes) Dalgliesh, Alice immigrated to England with her family when she was 13. Six years later she came to America to study kindergarten education at the Pratt Institute in New York City. She eventually received a Bachelor in Education and Master in English Literature from the Teachers College at Columbia University. While she was at school Dalgliesh applied for and received her naturalization as an American citizen. She taught for 17 years at the Horace Mann School, while also leading courses in children’s literature and story writing at Columbia.”

The Silver Pencil‘s protagonist, Janet Laidlaw, also moves from Trinidad to England and then to the United States, to study kindergarten education. She has some health issues and also spends some time recuperating in Nova Scotia, Canada. Janet becomes a kindergarten teacher, but finds that she is better suited to be a writer. She struggles with young adult sorts of issues: finding her vocation, responding to the men who come into her life, deciding in what country her true citizenship should lie. I daresay most young adults don’t need to make the final decision, but they do decide how much of a citizen they will be and what citizenship and civic duty entail.

I liked the book, but it’s not going to appeal to the masses. For teen and twenty-something girls who like stories about bookish and thoughtful young ladies growing up in and earlier time period (again fans of Montgomery’s Emily books, perhaps), The Silver Pencil might be just the thing.

Soulprint by Megan Miranda

The premise of this YA novel is that souls enter new bodies when people die, i.e. human reincarnation. And someone has a computer database record of whose soul has gone where and what that soul did in a past life. This database is controversial, secret, and important because of the other premise in the novel: souls of evil people (in new bodies with new identities) tend to repeat their past crimes. In other words, if I was thief in this life, my thieving soul gets passed on to the next person who inherits my soul.

So, in spite of the philosophically flawed idea of reincarnation, I found the book’s questions intriguing. Nature vs. nurture. Can we overcome or transcend our own past mistakes and sins, even those in this life? How? Why do we often repeat those bad decisions and sinful patterns? How do we become something better than what people expect us to be?

The book begins with seventeen year old Alina Chase, in seclusion on an island by order of the government to keep her from repeating the crimes of her past life. Alina doesn’t know much about who she was in her past life or what she did, but she’s tired of being blamed for something she didn’t really do and can’t even remember. When three other young people help Alina to escape the island, the four go on the run together, but Alina finds that the others have their own agendas and want to use her to gain their own ends. There’s romance, a bit of a triangle, but it’s fairly chaste as YA novels go these days: lots of heavy breathing and some intense kissing.

I liked the book, but the reincarnation thing bothered me because I just don’t believe in it. I found it hard to suspend disbelief and take the “database of past lives” seriously. However, that’s a flaw in my imagination. Otherwise, I thought it was deftly plotted and intriguing enough. It’s for teens looking for a psychological romance thriller in a sci-fi world.

The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson and Five Things That Made Me Smile

I do enjoy a good fairy retelling, but unfortunately this novel, based on the story of Cinderella, is not quite up to par. The characters—Gisela (Cinderella), Valten (the prince), Ruexner (inserted villain), and other minor characters—all seem rather wooden and dull and obscurely motivated. Ruexner especially is the stock villain, complete with black armor and an evil laugh. Had the setting been the Old West rather than medieval Germany, I’m sure he would have been twirling his mustaches and wearing a black hat. As it was, I never could figure out why Ruexner was so evil and so relentless; maybe that unfortunate name made him grouchy? Gisela repeats the cycle of kidnap, escape/rescue, and recapture, not once, not twice, not even the magical thrice, but rather six times over the course of the novel if I counted correctly, and finally when the villain returns for the fifth or sixth time, Gisela groans, “Not again!” I commiserated with her.

I read to the end, hoping that I would get to know and understand the characters better, but I never did. I would only recommend it to the reader who wants a dull and predictable romance story for the purpose of putting herself to sleep at bedtime.

Five Thing That made Me Smile on February 9, 2015:
1. I am losing my hearing. This bare fact does not make me smile; however, sometimes you’ve just gotta laugh at yourself.
I thought she said, “A stick a day keeps the doughnuts away.” ???
She actually said, “A sketch (drawing) a day keeps the dullness away.”

2. Do you believe in Mother? A parable/thought experiment from the Hungarian writer Útmutató a Léleknek. From Gene Veith’s blog, Cranach.

3. Downton Abbey, Season 5, Episode 6. Of course, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, Lady Grantham had the best lines: “Oh, all this endless thinking, it’s very overrated. I blame the war: before 1914 nobody thought of anything at all.”

4. Beautiful weather in Houston, sunshine, high temperature in the 70’s.

5. Z-baby is reading Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis, “an excellent and challenging book.”

What made you smile today?

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Two YA


Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I read these two recently acclaimed young adult speculative fiction novels over the Christmas break, and I liked one very much, despite its faults, while I hated the other, despite the interesting premise and better-than-adequate writing.

First, I read Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. Cringe. The protagonist, Glory, spends almost the entire book grousing about how self-centered her best (and only) friend, Ellie, is. However, it’s Glory herself who comes across as self-absorbed and practically narcissistic. Everything that everyone else in the book does or says is all about Glory and how it affects Glory and what Glory wants. Yes, she’s the narrator of the story, but still I never felt for a moment that Glory had any insight into how someone else in the book might be feeling or what someone else might be thinking. Nor did I feel that she wanted to have that kind of insight. Even the one unselfish thing that Glory does toward the end of the book is sort of mixed-up and full of thoughts about how Glory feels about her own unselfish act. The fantasy part of the book, in which Glory and her friend Ellie see flashes of what has happened and what will happen to people they meet, adds to the story as it reveals the possibilities that lie in the future, but the initial impetus for their ability to see the past and the future is rather ridiculous. They drink a shriveled up, powdered bat. Really. And then they can see brief glimpses of other people’s timelines. I thought through about half of the book that someone was going to realize that both Glory and Ellie were simply bat-crazy and horribly, mind-numbingly egocentric.

Belzhar was a much more satisfying read, even though the language and dialog in the book were not as well-written as Glory O’Brien. The difference was that I somehow cared about what happened to Jam (short for Jamaica), the narrator of Belzhar, whereas I just wanted Glory to hurry up and grow up and get over her navel-gazing. Belzhar tells the story of Jam and her classmates who are in a Special Topics for English class at a special school for teens who are having trouble coping with life and regular school. The teens can’t be mentally ill or drug-addicted, but they are all borderline, dealing with issues in their recent past that have made them unable to cope for one reason or another. Jam is at The Wooden Barn because she recently lost her boyfriend, Reeve, and the grief is killing her. When she realizes that the journal that she writes in for English class can transport her to a magical place, Belzhar, where she can reunite with Reeve, Jam is both thrilled and scared. Is she going crazy? Are her interludes with Reeve real, and how can she make sure they will last forever?

Even though I saw the plot twist coming, and even though the pacing of the novel was uneven, and even though the dialog was sometimes clunky, and even though I wanted to excise the minor homosexual subplot, I enjoyed reading Belzhar. I was intrigued to find out what had happened to Jam and her friends to bring them to their school/retreat, The Wooden Barn, and I was even more curious to see how they would succeed or fail in coping with the issues that they brought with them. Unlike Glory, Jam actually retains, or regains, the ability to care about other people, even while coping with her own difficulties. Jam, like all of us, is a flawed character, and we come to see just how broken she is by the end of the book, but I could identify with her in a way that I couldn’t with Glory O’Brien.

So, read Glory O’Brien ‘s History of the Future for flashy writing and empty, self-centered characters.
Or read Belzhar for engaging stories and characters described in slightly more pedestrian writing style and execution.

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12 Favorite Young Adult Ficton Books I Read in 2014

Not all of these YA fiction books were published in 2014, but several of them were.

The Winter Horses by Phillip Kerr. Historical fiction/magical realism set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. If you like horses or World War II stories, check it out.

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs. If this one were published now, it would be YA since it features teenaged protagonists. It’s not at all like contemporary YA, though.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. 1950’s New Orleans, on the seamy side of town.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This novel hit way too close to home for me to be able to write an objective, or even subjective, review. However, I found it quite haunting and memorable.

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. As his senior year in high school begins, Mike receives a series of letters from his father who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard. Good Arthurian fiction series, The Merlin Spiral also includes Merlin’s Shadow, and Merlin’s Nightmare.

Always Emily by Michaela McColl. An atmospheric mystery featuring Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky. A fictionalization of the true story of how Hitler’s pet film director, Leni Riefenstahl, enslaved Sinti and Roma gypsies to have them work as extras in her movies.

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora. Borderline between middle grade and YA and lots of fun for bookish types.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud. Maybe middle grade, maybe YA, but good anyway.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud. Book #2 in the Lockwood & Co. series about ghost-busting adolescents in an alternate history Victorian world.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer. I just read this one yesterday, but I liked it a lot despite some flaws. My review will be posted in 2015.

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The Land Uncharted by Keely Brooke Keith

Shangri-la. Brigadoon. The Village. The setting of a land unspoiled by modern technology or by modern barbarity is not a new device. However, in The Land Uncharted, debut author Keely Brooke Keith uses such a setting to anchor a mystery/romance story that transcends time and place.

Lydia Colburn is the only doctor for her village of Good Springs in The Land. She stays busy caring for pregnant women, delivering their babies, and treating accidental injuries. Sickness is rare in The Land. However, when Naval Aviator Connor Bradshaw parachutes onto the beach near Good Springs, injured and unconscious, it is Lydia who is called upon to treat his injuries.

Now The Land itself and its people are in danger, since in the year 2025 the outside world is in the throes of a world war and a shortage of fresh water. The Land has been uncharted and undisturbed for seven generations, since Lydia’s forbears first settled there in the mid-nineteenth century, but now with Connor’s arrival, their bucolic lives may be threatened.

The Land Uncharted is not only a debut novel for the author, a Nashville musician and mom, but it is also the first novel published by the small Christian publisher, Edenbrooke Press, which “exist[s] to publish books written from a Christian worldview.” The Christian worldview in The Land Uncharted is subsumed under a nineteenth century worldview, which assumes Christian values and beliefs rather than preaching or espousing them. Connor Bradshaw, a child of the twenty-first century and a man of war, seems to have very little trouble stepping into this retro-culture and clothing himself in its old-fashioned mores and thought patterns. I would have expected Connor to grapple a bit more with accepting the ideas and religious beliefs of The Land, but then again those ideas and beliefs are never really spelled out for him or for the reader, just assumed.

Nevertheless, The Land Uncharted is a promising start to a series that I will want to continue reading. The second book in the series, which will focus more on Lydia’s brother Levi, is set to be published in March of 2015. This first book would make a lovely Christmas gift for readers of Christian fiction or general romance readers who like a little futuristic speculative fiction in the mix.

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The Last Wild by Piers Torday

Wild” is a noun, not an adjective in this novel, and it means a group of animals who live together in a sort of ecosystem. Kester Jaynes is a boy, the son of a former veterinarian, who lives in a home for troubled children in a society that has become somewhat troubled, perhaps insane, itself.

The animals have all been destroyed because of the the “disease worse than a nuclear bomb” called red-eye. The animals were carriers, and now most of them are gone, except for insects and a few species of birds. However, one night Kester discovers that even though he is unable to speak even a word to humans, he can communicate with animals. A flock of pigeons and a cockroach rescue Kester from lockdown in the children’s home and take him to where the Last Wild is meeting in a desperate attempt to save themselves from becoming the last victims of red-eye.

Kester, through a series of odd events, becomes the leader of this Last Wild, and they set out together to find Kester’s father, who may hold the clue to a cure for the disease. Or Mr. Jaynes may be working with the evil Selwyn Stone Enterprise, makers of “formul-A”, the only food source for human beings now that the animals (and most all of the farms) are all gone. Kester is not sure what’s going on with his dad, but he journeys in faith that somehow his father will help the animals of the Last Wild.

So, this book is a post-apocolyptic father-quest with an evil corporation as antagonist, and the plot involves a weak but honorable boy traveling across country in the company of his animal friends and protectors. It sounds like a lot of other stories of its kind, and the formul-A and the cockroach friendship didn’t help my enjoyment of the novel. However, the sequel to this book, The Dark Wild, just won the Guardian Prize for for Children’s Fiction in Great Britain, a place where they may like their children’s books a little darker than I do and where they may not be as familiar with actual, Houston-size cockroaches. I can imagine those Britishers thinking that a cockroach would make a nice little pet, but they are wrong. Mice, yes, maybe, cockroaches, no way.

Anyway, if your toleration for roaches and pink slime (which is how I imagined the formul-A) is better than mine, and if the premise sounds interesting, you might want to check out The Last Wild. The roach friend and the nasty food are about the worst of the details of the novel. Oh, there are the dying stag and the crazy white pigeon.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
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.

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy

Mike gets a letter a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday: “If you’re reading this, I’m very sorry, but I was killed in the war in Afghanistan.” Thus begins a series of letters to Mike from the dad he didn’t really know who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old. Can Mike get to know his dad and maybe get some wisdom and advice, even though his dad is gone?

This YA contemporary fiction book has several things going for it:

It has a male protagonist, written by a male author. Mike really feels like a typical sixteen year old guy, kind of a straight arrow geek, but those really do exist. Mike reminds of some sixteen year olds I know.

The plot hinges on and features football, a very popular sport that hasn’t received its due in YA fiction. At least not in a good way. The stereotypical football player inmost YA fiction is a popular brain-dead jock who’s dating or dumping the also popular, brainless cheerleader. Mike finds friendship and community and the enjoyment of being part of a team in playing football, even if he does have to deceive his mother in order to make the team.

Mike’s dad is an everyman soldier who died in Afghanistan, and we get to know him as Mike does through his letters. Mike’s mom is over-protective and also distracted by trying to provide for Mike and his sister. These are real parents, not cardboard, and they both play an important part in Mike’s life and in the story. Not many YA novels really delve into the parent/teen relationship of imperfect parents who nevertheless love and try to relate to their also imperfect sons or daughters. Usually the parents are absent, stupid, or evil. Mike’s parents are none of the above.

I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book to any teen who’s trying to make sense of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq or any of the future wars we manage to get ourselves into. It’s not the final word on war or the meaning of life or heroism or honor, but it is a perspective. It’s an honorable and real perspective. I am quite impressed with Mr. Reedy as an author and as a commentator on the effects of war on families and especially young men. I like his other book that I read, Words in the Dust, and I liked this one, too.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
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.

The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry


Good old-fashioned Robert Heinlein-style juvenile science fiction. The story takes place in our own solar system. The characters are all human (well, except for Grandpa who’s mostly cyborg by now). The unfamiliar words are mostly space travel jargon (fireship, grav-sled, transponder) and pirate talk (belay, burgoo, avast, barky). There’s politics and adventure and espionage, and girls and guys take part equally in the adventure and in the drudge work.

Twelve year old twins Tycho and Yana, and older brother Carlo Hashoone are the three probable heirs to the Hashoone family business: a privateering starship called the Shadow Comet. Their mom, Diocletia, is the captain, and dad, Mavry, is the first mate. However, since only one of the three siblings can become captain when mom retires, there’s a lot of rivalry mixed in with the teamwork as the entire family, including Grandpa, work together to find and take prizes, namely Earth cargo ships. Because the Jovian Union, where the Hashoons are from, and Earth are technically at war, the Shadow Comet operates under letters of marquee to capture and hold for ransom any starships from Earth that might cross their path.

Besides just being a lot of fun, the book might bring up some interesting class or family discussions:

What is the difference between a pirate and a privateer? (Reference and compare Sir Francis Drake and also U.S. privateers of the American revolution.) How are the crew of the Shadow Comet different from historical pirates like Jean Lafitte? How are they similar? Are privateers really just “pirates with papers”? Is it justifiable to be a pirate (or privateer) if you’re fighting for your country while you you take a little profit for yourself?

Can family members work as a team and also be rivals for the same position? How would that work in real life? Have you seen families pull together in a crisis? Do they always?

Did you think it was unusual to have the mom be the captain of the Shadow Comet, with the dad serving under her authority as first mate? What did you think of Captain Diocletia giving orders to her father, her husband, and her children? Why do you think the author wrote the characters’ roles this way?

Yana is impulsive and decisive, whereas Tycho is more thoughtful and indecisive. Which twin are you more like? Which one do you think would make a better captain someday? Or would you choose Carlo, since he’s older and a better pilot?

What do you think about Grandpa’s decision at the end of the book? Was he right? If not, do you understand why he did what he did?

You can probably think of other avenues for discussion as you read the book. Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra is the first book in a series about the Hashoone family and their piratical (privateering!) adventures. The second book is Curse of the Iris, due out December 16, 2014.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
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.

Shipwreck Island by S.A. Bodeen

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK UNLESS YOU ARE WILLING TO WAIT THREE YEARS TO SEE HOW IT ENDS!

A book like this one should come with a warning label. It’s not a whole book. It’s short, 184 pages, and it just ends . . . in the middle of the story. It ends like an episode of LOST. In fact, it reads a lot like an episode of LOST. Anyway, I felt cheated. The book should have something on the cover that says it’s the first installment in a series. And I find that there are to be four books in all, and the next book in the series won’t be out until July, 2015. Not. nice.

Publisher? Editor? Author? Whoever is in charge? If you have a story that is this unfinished, just wait and publish all four volumes at the same time. Or publish the whole thing in one book. Something. At least with LOST, we only had to wait a week to see what happened next. A year is too long for me, and it’s certainly too long for the ten and eleven year olds that this series is written for. Do you know how long a year is in a pre-teen’s life? It’s forever. (Yes, the kids waited for the next installment of Harry Potter—because each of those books told a complete story. And the HP kids grew as the series went along.) Shipwreck Island is not Harry Potter, although HP is a book that one of the characters takes along to the desert island, and no one is going to remember—or care—what happened in this book by next July.

In Shipwreck Island, we have three kids and a mom and a dad who are shipwrecked on a mysterious island. I don’t see how the kids can grow much older or have the books’ themes and plots become more mature as they progress unless the author plans to have them stay on this island for a very long time. The first book only covers about two days on the island. So in next year’s exciting episode, are we going to have a time marker that says, “One year later . . .”?

Shipwreck Island could have been a good solid read for middle grade students who like adventure and a bit of mystery and horror. Those ten and eleven year olds don’t even remember LOST, anyway. However, somebody blew it as far as pre-publication planning goes. If you really, really love desert island stories with weird and scary creatures, wait three more years and buy the complete book in four volumes.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
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.