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Booked by Kwame Alexander

Whether I like to admit it or not, awards and public acclaim do influence my interest and enjoyment of a book. I read and wrote about Mr. Alexander’s first book, The Crossover in 2015, before it won the 2015 Newbery Award (and many other awards). My review, as anyone can see, was lukewarm: “if you do like stories in verse form, or if you don’t, but you really, really like basketball, you might want to check out Kwame Alexander’s basketball slam/rap/verse novel.”

Fast forward to 2016 and Kwame Alexander and verse novels are all the rage. Booked, his second verse novel for middle graders/young adults, at least has a title I can get behind, and I’m inclined to give it a fair shake partly because of all the acclaim for The Crossover. Booked is about books and words and family brokenness and well, soccer. I must confess that the soccer stuff I skimmed, hard to do in a novel written in tightly woven poetry, but easy for me because the few soccer-centric poems interspersed throughout the novel did not give me a picture in my mind. Because I’m soccer ignorant.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Booked. The drama in Nick Hall the protagonist’s family, Mac the rapping librarian, Nick’s dad and his book full of words, Nick’s crush on April, Nick’s mom and her easy way of relating to her teenage son—all of these aspects of the book were fun and good to read about in creative, poetic forms and types. The parts I didn’t like were the tired, old excuses and platitudes about divorce, the disrespect Nick showed for his parents, especially his dad, and the unresolved ending, which you will have to read for yourself.

I did like wading through the poems this time to capture the plot and the images and the feelings of being Nick Hall, a thirteen year old with a lot of hard stuff going on in his life. It was sort of like a game—find the plot thread. I’ve seen verse novels capture the interest of a reluctant reader in my own family this year, and I’m more sold on the genre than I was before. And I must admit that Mr. Alexander has a way with words, and poetry.

So, boys and soccer fans and just plain old readers should give it a try. Or try one of the other, mostly verse, novels that Alexander not-so-subtly recommends by way of his character Nick in this book:

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg.
Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
Peace Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose.
How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-sized Trophy by Crystal Allen.
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit.

By the way, Nick is emphatically NOT a reader as the book begins, but by the end of the story he’s looking for his next read. Librarians and teachers and parents might want to read this one just to watch the transformation, which is realistic, fits and starts, with the added attractions of a persistent librarian, a pretty girl, and some parental discipline.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Jeweled Moth by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Painted Dragon by Katherine Woodfine. (February, 2017)

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Sophie Taylor-Cavendish is the recently orphaned fifteen year old daughter of a military man and world traveler, her beloved “Papa.” However, since Papa died in an accident way out in South Africa, Sophie must make her own way in the world. And a job as a shopgirl in the millinery department at the fabulous new Sinclair’s Department store in Piccadilly, London, is just the place for a young girl with sense of adventure and a need for a regular source of income.

“Enter a world of bonbons, hats, perfumes, and mysteries around every corner! Wonder at the daring theft of the priceless clockwork sparrow! Tremble as the most dastardly criminals in London enact their wicked plans! Gasp as our bold heroines Miss Sophie Taylor and Miss Lillian Rose break codes, devour iced buns, and vow to bring the villains to justice.”

I think those two paragraphs pretty much capture the general atmosphere of this series of middle grade/YA mysteries. I read the first two books, and I hope to read the third book in the series when it comes out next year. These are not profound, literary, or even particularly well-plotted. There are few glitches in the mechanism, and suspension of disbelief is required. However, the setting and characters are just so enchanting and delicious that a few creaky or inconsistent plot details can and should be overlooked. I’m not sure the London of these books ever really existed, but it’s a delightful place for a mystery romp, nevertheless.

The books are appropriate for middle grade readers; the romance parts of the story are tame and miss-ish, as would be appropriate for the time period. However, there is a murder that takes place in each of the first two volumes in this series, and if a sensitivity to plain but not-gory descriptions of violence and crime are an issue, then younger readers may not be ready for these books. It’s not Agatha Christie, but it’s a good introduction to the genre that Dame Agatha owned.

There’s an ongoing mystery in these books concerning Sophie’s family and background, and I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series to see if there’s a resolution.

Between Heaven and Earth by Eric Walters

David, Junior, aka DJ, has been given a task in his grandfather’s will: to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and scatter his grandfather’s ashes at the summit. DJ, a typical oldest child/oldest grandchild, is hyper-responsible, committed, and a tad bit over-confident. He’s sure he can complete the climb in two or three days and return home, having done the job that his beloved grandfather, also named David, has asked him to do.

But climbing Kilimanjaro is not as easy as DJ thinks it will be.

This book is part of a Canadian series from Orca Books called The Seven. There are also The Seven Prequels and The Seven Sequels, so a total of twenty-one books in the entire series, three books for each of the fictional grandfather, David McLean’s seven grandsons. Each set of books (prequel, series book, and sequel) has a different author, and each one deals with the tasks and legacy that Grandfather McLean left to each of his seven grandsons. The authors are all award-winning Canadian YA writers: Eric Walters, John Wilson, Ted Staunton, Richard Scrimger, Norah McClintock, Sigmund Brouwer and Shane Peacock. And the stories themselves are real-life adventure quests that are designed to draw in reluctant readers, especially middle grade and teen boys.

In fact, I read that the idea for the series began with Mr. Walters and that he invited the six other authors to join him in writing the inter-linked books that are also good as stand-alone novels. I do want to read the other books about D.J. and his cousins now, even though a series of twenty-one books sounds like rather a big project to take on.

I’m rather intrigued to see whether the other authors’ books can stand up to the quality of this first book in the series. Has anyone else heard of these books or read any of the books in this series? I only discovered them because I read another book by Eric Walters last year and enjoyed it immensely. So, I went looking for more of Mr. Walters’ fiction. I have heard of Sigmund Brouwer, but not of the other Canadian authors who are collaborating in the series.

The Prequels (published in Fall, 2016)
Jungle Land by Eric Walters.
The Missing Skull by John Wilson.
Speed By Ted Staunton.
Weerdest Day Ever by Richard Scrimgar.
Slide by Norah McClintock.
Barracuda by Sigmund Brouwer
Separated by Shane Peacock.

The Original Seven (2012)
Between Heaven and Earth by Eric Walters.
Lost Cause by John Wilson.
Jump Cut By Ted Staunton.
Ink Me by Richard Scrimgar.
Close to the Heel by Norah McClintock.
Devil’s Pass by Sigmund Brouwer
Last Message by Shane Peacock.

The Sequels (2014)
Sleeper by Eric Walters.
Broken Arrow by John Wilson.
Coda By Ted Staunton.
The Wolf and Me by Richard Scrimgar.
From the Dead by Norah McClintock.
Tin Soldier by Sigmund Brouwer
Double You by Shane Peacock.

Theodosia, Daughter of Aaron Burr by Anne Colver

My daughters have become engrossed in listening to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical, Hamilton, and therefore I have listened to bits and pieces of it quite a few times over the past couple of weeks. (Warning: there’s some fairly foul language in the lyrics to the musical, as well as some lurid gossip about the main characters. On the other hand, some of the lyrics are quite funny and witty.) As one thing leads to another, I noticed this book on the shelves of my library and decided to read it. Theodosia Burr Alston was the only (legitimate)* daughter of Aaron Burr, who figures prominently in the life and, of course, death of Alexander Hamilton.

Anne Colver wrote this book for children or young adults, and it was published in 1941. The content is largely pro-Burr, although various characters can’t help speculating that Burr may have lost at least some of his reason and judgment after the duel with Hamilton. Aside from murdering Hamilton, Burr does do other fantastical and ill-judged things: in particular he becomes involved in a plot to invade Mexico and either to deliver it to the United States or to set up a rival empire with Aaron Burr as emperor.

We see Aaron Burr in the book from the point of view of the adoring Theodosia. Her love never fails. She always believes in her father, always expects the best of him, always stands her ground in defending him. However, Theodora’s husband, Joseph Alston, makes a telling statement about his father-in-law, which becomes the summary judgment of this take on Aaron Burr: “It’s hard to pity a man who can never admit he’s been mistaken. Your father has so much to make him a great man, Theo. He has brilliance and ambition and energy. And magnificent courage. But he has more pride than any man is entitled to in this world.”

And yet, Theodosia, and the readers of this lightly fictionalized biography of Theodosia Burr Alston are impelled to pity Theodosia and her infamous father by the end of the book. He almost became president, but he was also thwarted and insulted at every turn by Alexander Hamilton and his political allies. Burr lost his wife (also named Theodosia) during Washington’s presidency. He endured Hamilton’s calumnies for many years without reply. Then, came the duel, which Burr initiated, and the people of New York were so incensed at Burr that he felt he had to leave the country. And he owed so many debts that he fled with hardly any money to France where he lived in near-poverty. Then, after the Southwestern Empire debacle, Theodosia’s only child, a son named for his grandfather, died of a fever. And in the final tragedy of the book, Theodosia set out from Charleston to travel by ship to New York to visit her aging and still beloved father, but the ship she was on never arrived. Lost at sea.

I don’t really know what to think about Aaron Burr or his daughter. Anya Seton wrote a novel, My Theodosia, also published in 1941, which apparently paints a much different picture of Burr and his daughter. I haven’t read Seton’s novel, but according to Wikipedia Seton portrays a traitorous and hugely ambitious Aaron Burr and again, an adoring and manipulable Theodosia. Burr offers his daughter the opportunity to become Princess of the Western American Empire, and young Theodosia has a brief romance with Meriwether Lewis, thwarted by her protective father. I prefer the Colver version of Theodosia and her father, but I’m not at all sure what is actually accurate or true.

And so the Burrs remain an enigma to some extent, but fascinating nevertheless.

*I went on a bit of a rabbit trail after reading the Wikipedia article about Aaron Burr, which stated that he had two illegitimate children with his East Indian servant, Mary Emmons. These two children, John (Jean) Pierre Burr and Louisa Charlotte Burr, grew up to become influential members of the free black community in Philadelphia, and Burr’s grandson, Frank J. Webb, wrote the second African American novel ever to be published. What would Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher and Aaron’s Burr’s grandfather, have thought of his illustrious, infamous grandson and his progeny?

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

I have very mixed feelings about this book. First of all, it deals with a subject that is timely and necessary and at the same time horrible and unsavory. I wish it would go away, but it won’t, and ignoring it won’t make it not be. The subject is rape and sexual assault. If you don’t want to read a book about a girl who is raped and who not only survives but also refuses to be a victim, you can certainly come at the subject from another direction and another perspective. But the subject itself is unavoidable.

Who hasn’t heard about the Stanford sexual assault case and the terrible miscarriage of justice there that dominated the news a week or two ago? Exit, Pursued by a Bear tells a story similar to that of the Stanford case, except that Hermione Winters, the victim in this story, is an individual (as are all rape and sexual assault victims). She doesn’t just become “that girl who was raped” because this terrible thing happened to her, although the rape does change her life, make her life different, stronger in some ways, weaker in others. One thing that the story makes clear is that everyone deals with the aftermath of a sexual assault in their own individual way; there is no right or wrong way to react, no one way to recover or survive.

And yet, the book certainly hints strongly that there is only one way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy that is the result of a rape. Hermione decides to have an abortion when she finds out that she is pregnant, and no one dares to question that choice or speak for the unborn child. I doubt I would dare to do so myself, were I to be confronted with a teenage girl who had been raped and who was determined to abort the child who was conceived in that act. The subject is too fraught, too horribly conflicting and traumatic, for anyone to give glib advice or to moralize. Nevertheless, without the pain and the emotion of such a tragedy clouding my judgment, I can still say that the baby is not to blame for the father’s crime. The child is still a child and deserves to live, no matter what. Is it a difficult and painful decision? Yes. Does it help anyone to compound the tragedy of sexual assault/rape by adding to it the death of an innocent child? No, I don’t believe it does.

So many good things about this novel. Hermione Winters refuses to be just another victim, just another case number. She has the love and support of friends and family. She doesn’t deny the changes in herself and her life and her relationships, but she does not let the rape define who she is or limit what and who she can become. Trauma is real and evident in Hermione’s story, but so is recovery and even forgiveness, if not for the rapist, at least for those friends who fail to support Hermione because of their own conflicting emotions and reactions.

However, there are several not so good things about the novel, too: an unexamined, almost obligatory, decision for abortion, the stereotypical gay friend who is, of course, the secondary heroine of the story, and the ending, which was strangely unsatisfying and almost unbelievable. I was appalled and saddened by the “ending” of the the real-life Stanford sexual assault case, and I would like to see a book on this subject at least allows room for a pro-life perspective or that shows a person dealing with the aftermath of rape or sexual assault without the added pro-abortion messaging.

The Lark and the Laurel by Barbara Willard

The first in Ms. Willard’s series, The Mantlemass Chronicles, this romance novel is beautifully written. I compared it in my mind to another romance novel I read earlier this month (because it was set in Scotland; I don’t usually read romances), and this one by Willard is much more pleasing to the ear and to the imagination. The plot’s advancement depends on coincidence and on several fortuitous events that are almost unbelievable when threaded together to make a story. However, I didn’t care.

I just wanted Cecily and her fine, upstanding country friend, Lewis Mallory, to be able to get together in spite of all of the obstacles put before and between them. The blurb on the back of the book says that Christian Science Monitor called the book “an entrancing tale of cruel fathers, arranged marriages, sensible aunts, and a true love.” Library Journal named it “tender, solemn romance and a well-sustained mystery.” I agree. This book, published in 1970, holds up well as YA or even adult historical fiction, and the writing and the historical background require something of the reader that modern-day historical romances don’t usually—close and careful reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a marriage truly is or isn’t. This book adds something to my rumination on that subject. Set in England in 1485, just as Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond came to the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrians and the Yorks, the story features several characters, each with his or her own attitude about what marriage is meant to be. Cecily’s father sees marriage as a contract, a way to advance his own interests in terms of power and money. Cecily’s aunt, having lived through a bad marriage to a cruel husband, is interested in maintaining her own independence and in helping Cecily to become strong and independent, too. However, Aunt Elizabeth FitzEdmund is not opposed to Cecily’s marriage—to the right person and at the right time and for love, not to further Cecily’s father’s ambitions. Cecily herself is not sure what she thinks, not having been allowed to think for herself nor to have any philosophies about marriage or anything else.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the Mantlemass Chronicles:

The Sprig of Broom (1485)
The Eldest Son (1534)
A cold Wind Blowing (1536)
The Iron Lily (1557)
A Flight of Swans (1588)
Harrow and Harvest (1642)

These books take us through English history from the Battle of Bosworth, to the reign of the Tudor kings, to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, to the Spanish Armada, to another English civil war between Cromwell’s Roundheads and the king’s men, Cavaliers. During all these great events the families in and around the manor house Mantlemass—Mallorys, Medleys, Plashets, and Hollands–pursue their own ends and keep their own secrets. From reading the synopses of these other novels in the series, I can see that marriage and romance and family secrets and loyalty and independence continue to be themes that Ms. Willard explores in her books. I’m going to enjoy exploring with her and her characters.

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin

I read Remembrance for my journey to Scotland last month because it was the only book by Theresa Breslin, Carnegie medal winning Scottish author, that my library system had. And it was set during World War I, a favorite time period. There were definitely echoes of Downton Abbey in the book.

Seventeen year old John Malcolm Dundas, son of a Scottish shopkeeper, can’t wait to enlist and fight the Huns. His sister Maggie is eager to do her part, too, or at least to do something more exciting than working her father’s store, and she goes to work in a munitions factory. Little brother Alex Dundas is only fourteen, but he longs to get into the fighting before the war ends. Then, there’s the other family in the book, the Armstrong-Barneses, consisting of mother, son Francis, and daughter Charlotte. Charlotte trains to become a nurse so that she can contribute to the war effort, even though her mother does not approve of girls in her “station of life” (the upper class) working in hospitals, particularly not her teenaged daughter. Francis, old enough to be a soldier, tries to avoid the war, reads lots of newspapers, and draws. He’s the sensitive, artistic type, and he’s opposed to the war and the way it’s being fought.

The book follows the histories of these five teens as World War I impacts them, fills their lives, and changes them and their families and their village. It would be a good fictional introduction to World War I for high school age readers and for adults. The details of life in the trenches and in the hospitals are harrowing and gritty, but I would much prefer this book as an accompaniment to the study of World War I over the one that’s often assigned, All Quiet on the Western Front. I found the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front very nearly as confusing as the battles of the war itself must have been. Remembrance with its more straightforward plot leaves out none of the horror of the war, but it tells the story of World War I in a much more approachable and understandable manner.

The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett

The Ringed Castle, Book Five in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
Checkmate, Book Six in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.

I can’t believe I read the whole thing, but I’m glad I did. I began reading this six volume series back in December 2013 with Game of Kings, the first book in the series. In this novel, a young Francis Crawford of Lymond, second son of a nobleman and landowner in fourteenth century Scotland, cavorts and carouses his way through wartorn southern Scotland and back and forth across the border with the enemy, England. Francis is a giddy young man with a facile and garrulous tongue, but also a leader in war and romance, with an undercurrent of danger and subversive rebellion running through his character. He’s a medieval/renaissance Scottish James Bond, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Scarlet Pimpernel all rolled into one.

Queen’s Play and The Disorderly Knights deal with Lymond’s adventures in France and around and about the Mediterranean as he serves and politics the king of France, Henri II, the child Mary of Scotland, later to become Mary Queen of Scots, and the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitaliers. After a stirring and tragic (for Lymond’s inamorata, Oonagh O’Dwyer) escape from the Turkish invaders in Tripoli, Lymond and his second in command, Gabriel, both return to Scotland where Lymond puts together a small private army, trained in all of arts of war and intended to keep the peace along the Scottish border.

If you’ve made it this far in the series, you’re sure to be hooked by this time, and the fourth book is the climax of the entire story, with a rather infamous human chess game forming the centerpiece of the action. In Pawn in Frankincense, Francis Crawford is at his most vulnerable and his most deadly. The chess game in the seraglio in Istanbul is unforgettable.

Books Five and Six are the ones I read this month as I made my impromptu trip to literary Scotland. In The Ringed Castle, Crawford of Lymond has exiled himself to Russia, the backside of the world in this time period and the land ruled by Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, later known as Ivan the Terrible. In this half-barbarian court of a half-mad tsar, Lymond becomes the Voevoda Bolshoi, supreme commander and advisor to Tsar Ivan. In the meantime, back in England, Phillipa, the teenager that Lymond married in in Book Four, only in outward form in order to save her good name and protect her and her mission, is serving in the court of Mary I (Bloody Mary) and investigating Lymond’s mirky and mysterious past and family background.

Checkmate brings everything in the first five books to a satisfying close, well, almost everything. With a great many starts and stops, hesitations and false starts, triumphs and tragedies, Francis Crawford of Lymond finally meets his destiny, finds his true parents and heritage, and becomes the man he was meant to be. If you have never read these books and you want to, I would recommend that you plan for a marathon reading of all six books in order over the course of a month or more and that you have an English dictionary and a French-speaking translator nearby at all times. A working knowledge of Spanish, Russian, Gaelic, and Scots dialect would come in handy also.

I have a theory that, after the events of these six books were finished, Francis Crawford of Lymond became the actual secret author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

I will admit that it’s really difficult to write a realistic, compelling, and heart-warming story about an adulterous affair. Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Flaubert (Madame Bovary), and other greats nailed the first two adjectives, realistic and compelling, but no book that I can recall has managed to make adultery “heart-warming”.

Ms. Brockmole tries in Letters from Skye, but in doing so she loses the realism and and even makes the whole tawdry story a bit boring by the time this reader figured out that this novel was going to be a “happily ever after” story, after all. Elspeth Dunn, married to Iain, is a poet who lives on the island of Skye off the coast of Scotland. When she receives a fan letter from American student David Graham, Elspeth answers his letter with one of her own. And so the affair begins.

The story begins in 1912, just before World War I. Eventually, the story moves through the Great War and the time between the wars into the beginning years of World War II. These two wars form the background for this novel of a woman who “loves” her husband, a sort of flat character who never really takes shape as a real person in the novel, but loves her grand passion for David Graham even more.

I had little sympathy for any of the characters in this novel, and I found most of them a tad unbelievable. David, the American, is naive and worldly at the same time, if such a combination is possible. He comes to London to have an assignation with a married woman, but he is offended when his war buddies in France make ugly jokes about his affair. Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, who has never been told much about her background or about her male parent, goes off on a sleuthing spree to find out these details while her mother has disappeared without a trace. Margaret seems more interested in finding out about the letters her mother and David Graham wrote during the war than she is in finding her absent mother. Elspeth herself is “torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool.” I never had any sense of why Elspeth was willing to become involved with another man besides her husband. Nor did I understand why she married Iain in the first place. She seemed to be fond of her husband, but David just wrote such good letters?

I read this book as a part of my May journey through Scotland, but I wish I had skipped it. Not recommended, unless you can believe in a story of romantic adultery.

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Very piratical. And romantical.

Not really bloody. Or violent. Well, not very. I mean, there are pirates. But Captain Peter Blood (that’s his real name) is a gentleman pirate. He only kills bad guys. And a lot of the really bad, violent stuff occurs off-stage, so to speak. Captain Blood reminds me of Captain Jack Sparrow, sort of quirky and not always trustworthy. He lives by his own code of honor and morality, and it’s not exactly the traditional one of his time and culture. Still, Captain Blood sees himself, and others mostly see him, as a gentleman, forced into piracy by circumstances beyond his control and trying to make the best of it.

The story begins in England, 1685. (You can read an article with detailed historical background to the novel here.) Peter Blood is a “bachelor of medicine and several other things besides.” He becomes inadvertently involved in the Monmouth Rebellion against King James II of England. Although he is innocent, guilty only of sheltering and assisting medically one of the fleeing rebels, Blood is convicted of treason, and in lieu of a sentence of execution, he is sent to Barbados as a slave. Eventually after years of captivity, Peter Blood escapes from his master in Barbados, but since he is an outlaw and an escaped slave with a price on his head, he has little choice but to become a buccaneer, or privateer, or in common parlance, a pirate.

Some of the events in Peter Blood’s career as a pirate sound very similar to the exploits of the actual pirate Henry Morgan, fictionalized in John and Patricia Beatty’s book, Pirate Royal. Sabatini explains this similarity in his book by saying that Captain Morgan’s biographer, Esquemeling, must have read the ship’s log of Captain BLood’s ship. “Esquemeling must have obtained access to these records, and he plucked from them the brilliant feathers of several exploits to stick them into the tale of his own hero, Captain Morgan. I mention it chiefly as a warning, for when presently I come to relate the affair of Maracaybo, those of you who have read Esquemeling may be in danger of supposing that Henry Morgan really performed those things which are veraciously attributed to Peter Blood.”

So, Captain Blood, the epitome of the pirate adventure story, published in 1922, is a good bet to recommend to teens and adults looking for pirate books. The Sea Hawk is another pirate story from the pen of the prolific Sabatini. Both of these novels were adapted into movies by the Hollywood film machine of the 1920’s and 1930’s, twice each, first as silent films and again as “talkies”, the latter starring the swashbuckling film hero, Errol Flynn.