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Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick

Absolutely Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery by Heather Vogel Frederick.

Twelve year old Truly Lovejoy’s army captain dad has come back from Afghanistan minus one arm and transformed into Silent Man. He used to be fun, and Truly’s family used to be referred as the Magnificent Seven–Truly, her brothers, Danny and Hatcher, her sisters, Lauren and Pippa and mom and dad. Now everything has changed, and the family has to move from wonderful Austin, Texas to tiny Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, the back side of nowhere if there ever was such a place.

The mystery part of this family story was rather lame and stretched my credulity: it involved some twenty year old love letters that were hidden and stayed put for the entire time and a treasure hunt that seemed to have very little purpose. However, the mystery is really just a vehicle for the characters and their interactions, and this aspect is where the story shines. Truly and her family members and her new classmates are a joy to get to know, and I award points to any story with a family of five or more children.

I’m assuming from the subtitle that this one is the first in a possible series of “Pumpkin Falls mysteries”. I’d recommend to middle school mystery lovers and to those who would enjoy a story featuring a largish family and a veteran dad. The story provides an upbeat and encouraging look at military families and the adjustments that veterans and their families have to make after their service, but it doesn’t gloss over the difficulties and changes that sometimes occur.

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Running Out of Night by Sharon Lovejoy

A nameless, motherless, abused white girl and a runaway slave girl named Zenobia are thrown together in a journey toward freedom. Even though the Zenobia gives Nameless Girl the name of Lark, the two find it difficult to trust each other or to trust the people who are willing to help them along their way on the Underground Railroad.

The salient feature of this debut novel by Sharon Lovejoy is the Virginia backwoods dialect that threads through the pages to bring the characters to life:

Zenobia: “Auntie goin to tell you later tonight where you be goin soon. And she give you a fine new name for the travelin. She call you Miss Abigail Harlan, but I likes Lark best.”

Lark: “Zenobia? Trouble girl, answer me. Sorry, so sorry. You was so scairt, I should’ve helped you more.”

I think it’s just enough to make the characters real and interesting without turning them into caricatures and without making the language too dense and hard to understand. If you don’t like the dialect in the examples above, there’s a lot more where that came from, so you probably wouldn’t like the story much.

Otherwise, the book is one chase scene after another. Lark’s pa and her brothers are chasing after her because she’s their “slave”, the one who cooks and cleans and gardens for them. The slave catchers are after Zenobia for the reward. lark and Zenobia get separated and have to chase after one another. Lark has to look for her friends, Zenobia and other runaways and a Quaker woman who helps them, because she knows that the slave catchers are about to catch up with them. Some of the scenes are fairly violent, and the cruelty of slavery and of slave owners and slave catchers is not minimized or played down; rather the opposite, Lark learns that the abuse that her father and her family have subjected her to is still less than the brutality that Zenobia and the other former slaves have seen and experienced.

This novel has a little bit different take on the horrors of slavery, and it ends with peace and thanksgiving. So I recommend it.

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Twelve Bright Trumpets by Margaret Leighton

Published in 1942, this collection of twelve stories illuminates various events and eras during the time we call the Middle Ages. The first story takes place in Roman Britain about 400 A.D., when the Romans were withdrawing their legions from their colonial possessions in order to defend Rome itself from the barbarians. In the story, a ten year old Celtic boy, Gaius, is awakened in the middle of the night when his village is attacked by Northern pirates, Picts and Scots. He attends a meeting of the Celtic chieftains in which they learn that the Romans who have been their defense are leaving, and they decide to accept help from the friendly Angles and Saxons, many of whom have made their homes in Roman Britain.

The rest of the stories in the book are just as exciting and just as informative as the first:

“A Blackbird Sings” (about 800 A.D.)
The monastery where the peasant boy Remy is going to school receives a visit from the Emperor Charlemagne.

“The People Remembered” (about 870 A.D.)
Just after the Danish invasion of Britain has been stopped by King Alfred, Cedric, a young Saxon, meets the brave king.

“Hail, Normansland!” (about 900 A.D.)
Astrid, in Norway, awaits the return of her father who, with other Vikings, has been attacking the northern coast of France.

“The Conqueror” (about 1075 A.D.)
Edith , a Saxon girl, and Alix, a Norman girl, become friends when they are both attending a convent school in Normandy in the time of William the Conqueror.

“The Great Journey” (1095-1099 A.D.)
Denis, a young squire, accompanies his master on the First Crusade and is rewarded for his part in the taking of Jerusalem. (This one is a bit dated in its perspective, maybe correct but definitely not in tune with contemporary attitudes about the Crusades. The Christian crusaders are described as “as shrewd as they were bold and fearless” and “young, valiant and keen for battle”; the Turks are “unspeakably cruel”, “without mercy”, “infidels”, and “heathens.”)

“Twelve Bright Trumpets” (about 1150 A.D.)
At the death of her mother and father, Rohais is left alone to protect the castle until her brother from the Crusades. (My favorite of the twelve stories and the story from which the book’s title is taken. I thought the ending was clever and memorable.)

“Echo Over Runnymede” (1215 A.D.)
Geoffrey, page to an earl who objects to King John’s tyranny, is present at the signing of the Magna Carta. (Watch Disney’s Robin Hood, which features a greedy King John, after reading this story?)

“Town Air Is Free Air” (13th century A.D.)
Jacques, a young serf, runs away from the feudal manor village to escape the terrible anger of the baron’s game warden. (My second favorite story in the collection. Jacques finds a home, and the story could lead to much discussion of slavery, freedom, human rights and dignity, and similar topics.)

“Marco and the Marble Hand” (14th century A.D.)
Caught by a reawakened enthusiasm for art in Florence, Marco, a peasant boy, finds something to show the artist, Master Antonio.

“A Noble Magic” (about 1450 A.D.)
Karl, a copyist’s apprentice who is tired of copying books by hand, finds at the establishment of Master Gutenberg a noble magic.

“Queen of the Sea” (about 1500 A.D.)
Camilla, at home in Venice while her brother is on a voyage with Vasco da Gama, almost misses the great water festival.

These would be wonderful read aloud stories to accompany a study of the Middle Ages and leading into Early Modern times and the age of exploration. I recommend the book ages seven to twelve, if you can find a copy. (I see that Amazon has used copies, and Rainbow Resource has it in stock.)

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Silent Alarm by Jennifer Banash

Silent Alarm is a young adult novel about a school shooting as experienced by the shooter’s sister, also a student at the high school where the shooting takes place. The strength, and the main weakness, of the novel is that it never answers the basic question left in the aftermath of all school shootings: why? In this case, why did Alys Aronson’s older brother, Luke, kill fifteen people and then turn the gun on himself? How could the brother that Alys loved and learned from do such a thing? Of course, I have no answer to the question of why one man’s sin leads to death, for himself and for others, while another’s equal sin leads to repentance, mercy, and life.

What the novel does well is present the predicament of those who are left behind in the families of murderers, in particular. Alys is devoted, conflicted, and victimized. Because Luke is not around for them to hate and to blame, the victims’ families blame Alys and her family. How could they have let Luke do such a horrific thing? How could they not have known?

Alys also blames herself. Maybe she should have known that something was wrong with Luke. Maybe she should have not enjoyed being the favored child, the one who followed the rules. Maybe she should have died, too, when Luke pointed the gun at her, but didn’t shoot.

Silent Alarm is not an enjoyable book. It ends with some small wisp of hope for Alys, but not much more that that.

“And even as I lie there hoping, hoping with everything I am that somehow I have the right to go on, to make a life for myself apart from what Luke has done, I also know that it might just be a fantasy, a moment of wishful thinking. A story I tell myself in moments of quiet contemplation, when the wind outside shifts through the trees in a whisper, rustling the curtains, and lulling me into sleep.

But in spite of everything that’s happened, I would like to believe it.”

Don’t read for answers, and don’t read if you are prone to or connected with depression or depressive violence. But if you’re interested in a different perspective on school shootings and their aftermath, Silent Alarm is a well-written interpretation of a tragic event, sans nasty language and gratuitous violent description. (Of course, the central event itself is quite violent.)

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The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks are back! And the focus in this installment is Batty, who has grown to be a mature and thoughtful fifth grader, but still shy and retiring, and still quite musically talented. Her life’s motto is: Musica anima mea est (Music is my life).

Two more children have been added to the Penderwick clan: Ben, the sisters’ seven year old stepbrother, and Lydia, their two year old sister, born of the marriage between Mr. Penderwick and the next-door neighbor, Iantha. Ben’s passion is rocks. He digs for them, collects them, and studies them. And Lydia’s passions are princesses, crowns, flowers, dance, escaping her crib—-and big brother Ben. “Lydia loved everyone she’d encountered in her short life—never had a Penderwick been so pleased with the human race—but she loved Ben most of all. This was a burden no boy should have to bear.”

The older girls are back too. Rosalind is away at college, but not too far away to come home for visits frequently. Seventeen year old Skye is absorbed in her beloved math, still friends with Jeffrey, but decidedly not his girlfriend, “among all the Penderwicks, . . . least likely to want to discuss grief or any other emotion.” Sixteen year old Jane is still writing stories, trying to speak French, and presiding over the gang of boys who for some reason like to come over to the Penderwick home and devour pretzels and hang out.

Batty becomes unwillingly involved in and affected by the teen and grown-up problems of Skye’s love life, the Penderwick family’s money problems, and some misunderstandings about the family’s history. On the surface, it might seem that having Batty become entangled in such adult issues would be a mistake for a children’s book, but Batty comes at the problems from her own eleven year old perspective, and all is resolved and made right in the end. And the truth is that children are impacted by the problems and concerns of their older family members, so showing Batty dealing with her own issues in response to those of her older siblings and her parents is realistic without being too heavy.

Because the Penderwicks, like the Quimbys, are a happy family, nothing gets so broken that it can’t be mended in this story of misapprehensions, dealing with grief and fear, and clashing personalities. Lydia provides comic relief, a la Ramona the Pest, and Batty grows up just a little. But no one is so grown up that there can’t be a fifth (and final?) Penderwicks book, something I heard is in the works. Long live the Penderwicks!

If you haven’t read the first three Penderwick books, I highly recommend them, and then this fourth one. They keep getting better.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall. Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2006.
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street.
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.

Beneath by Roland Smith

So, first I thought the premise of this young adult novel was intriguing:

“Exactly one year to the day after my brother, Coop, ditched me, I got a package in the mail.
It came to the school, not our home.
The secretary handed me the package with a warning that I was never to use the school as my personal address.
I was going to tell her that I hadn’t when I saw my name: Pat Meatloaf O’Toole, scrawled in Coop’s familiar handwriting.
Meatloaf is not my middle name.
I told her that I would never do it again, grabbed he package, locked myself in a restroom stall, and tore the box open.
Inside was a handheld digital voice recorder, a supply of memory sticks, and a note written on a greasy hamburger wrapper.”

As the story continued, and Pat began to fill in the background about himself and his runaway older brother, Cooper, I began to think the details were a little corny. Coop is an oddball, to say the least. He sleeps in school and stays awake all night. He spends his nights either digging tunnels or tap dancing on bridges and overpasses. The entire family is odd. Mother, a former astronaut turned astrophysicist, and father, a molecular biologist and Nobel laureate, are somewhat uninvolved parents–but loving, nonetheless. The boys have identical twin nannies who speak only Spanish and can’t be distinguished from one another. It was all just a little too quirky, but still intriguing enough to keep me reading.

Then, Pat goes to New York City to look for Coop, gets involved with a homeless community of underground dwellers, and goes from danger into disaster. Maybe I’m easily amused and easily befuddled, but I didn’t see the twists and turns coming. I enjoyed the “thriller” aspects of the novel, and I was able to suspend disbelief, even though the whole story is pretty unbelievable.

Throw in murder, terrorism,, a love interest for Coop (nothing explicit), sophisticated criminal activity underneath the sidewalks, homes and buildings of NYC, and a couple of brothers who are the only ones between those master criminals and the destruction of great swaths of the United States. It was a fun ride, and there’s a set-up for a sequel. However, the ending was satisfying, not frustrating.

Recommended for those who like this sort of story (maybe fans of Kiki Strike or of Carolyn Cooney and Margaret Peterson Haddix) –ages twelve and up.

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The Cottage in the Woods by Katherine Coville

Fairy tale meets Gothic romance in this tale of recent graduated she-bear Ursula Brown, governess to young Teddy Vaughn, the only living child of the rich and well-regarded Vaughn family, who live in a manor house in the woods near Bremen Town. The imposing manor is fondly nicknamed The Cottage in the Woods. As Ursula takes up her duties in the Vaughn household she is frightened not only by the high expectations of Mr. Vaughn, but also by the uncanny footsteps she hears in the hallways of the manor, the inexplicable enmity with which she is regarded by Teddy’s old nurse, and the impending danger that seems to hang over nearby Bremen Town. This novel is more than a re-telling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and better than a take-off on Jane Austen’s and Charlotte Bronte’s classics. Hostilities between humans and “the Enchanted” (talking animals) provide the story with a theme and a moral, but the preachiness is decidedly Victorian in tone and so entirely palatable, indeed inspiring.

This 389-page tome was a delight from start to finish. Anyone familiar with Gothic novel tropes will enjoy finding them embedded in the story, and children who are not yet readers and fans of Austen and Bronte will find The Cottage in the Woods a gentle introduction to the genre. The bears worship and pray and sing hymns without apology or embarrassment, and it’s all very Victorian. Yet the fairy tale element adds a whimsicality to the story that will appeal to older children, especially girls. Oh, and there’s a wonderfully crochety and sarcastic Magic Mirror who never manages to answer a single one of Ursula’s questions with any hint of helpfulness or straightforwardness.

I think my girls, ages sixteen and thirteen and fans of both video versions of Pride and Prejudice and also avid viewers of the TV series Once Upon a Time in its first season a couple of years ago, will enjoy this amalgam of folk tale characters, Latin aphorisms, sophisticated vocabulary, and 19th century romance. I certainly did.

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham.
The Luck Uglies #2: Fork-Tongue Charmers by Paul Durham.

The first book in this fantasy series for middle grade readers, published in 2014, won the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. I read it when I was on the panel for Cybils, and I thought I had reviewed it here, but it turns out that I was too busy reading to review The Luck Uglies. So, a quick re-cap:

Riley (Rye) O’Chanter lives on Mud Puddle Lane in Village Drowning with her mother, Abby O’Chanter, her little sister, Lottie, and Nightshade (Shady) Fur Bottom O’Chanter, the cat. Rye is a mischievous urchin, but she has quite a few rules to remember. There are her mother’s house rules. (House Rule Number One is: “Don’t stop, talk or questions ask; beware of men wearing masks.”) Then, there are the rather arbitrary Laws of Earl Morningwig Longchance, such as “it’s illegal to feed pigs on Market Street” and “no woman may wear blue without the express permission of the Honorable Earl Longchance.”

All rules and laws become insignificant in the face of the danger that is coming to Village Drowning: the supposedly extinct Bog Noblins are returning, and there are no more Luck Uglies to fight them off. The Luck Uglies, a secret society of outlaws who used to be Village Drowning’s protectors, are now the Earl’s enemies and hence banished from the village. How will the inhabitants of Village Drowning fight off the Bog Noblins, keep the Laws of Longchance, and figure out whose side the Luck Uglies are on?

So, the first book was an exciting and absorbing introduction to Rye O’Chanter, the Luck Uglies, and Rye’s friends and family. Book 2, Fork Tongue Charmers, introduces us to new characters, new places, and new problems for Rye and the people of Village Drowning. In this book, the Luck Uglies are divided and at odds with one another, while Earl Longchance has hired a new enforcer to bring the villagers, and the Luck Uglies, into line. Rye and her family run away to the island of Pest, her mother’s homeland, but trouble follows them there.

The story is, as I said, absorbing. If I had any issue at all with these first two books in this trilogy-to-be, it was the moral ambiguity of the characters and indeed of the entire story so far. It’s hard to tell whether the Luck Uglies, in particular, are the good guys or the bad guys or a little of both. I predict that this ambiguity will be resolved by the end of the third book in the series, and we will find that, though perhaps mistakes and misunderstandings have occurred, the white hats and the black hats are distinguishable after all. But I can’t promise, since there are a lot of unanswered questions yet to be settled.

So what did I like about this second book? I liked Rye and her penchant for going straight to the heart of a problem and solving it. I liked the family dynamics in Rye’s immediate family and in her extended family. I liked “traveling” to the island of Pest and feeling a taste of Ireland, or perhaps Scotland, in this fictional other-world setting and culture. I liked the Robin Hood echoes and the way I was reminded of Heidi’s grandfather in Swiss Alps in Rye’s island grandfather.

The Luck Uglies is good stuff. Different stuff. Perhaps, depending on how the series wraps ups, even classic stuff.

Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins

Set on an island in the Sunderbans (islands) of West Bengal, Tiger Boy is a story about a disobedient and somewhat lazy boy who nevertheless does the right thing and inspires his father to choose right and justice over the desire to see his family prosper.

I had some hesitations about the plot of the story, showing Neel and his sister deliberately disobeying their parents in order to save a lost tiger cub from poachers, but by the end I was pleased with the way the actions of the characters came together. Everyone grew and learned, except maybe the money-grubbing criminal, Gupta.

One throwaway line in the story has Neel’s headmaster commenting that “It’s so blazing hot for January. I’ll sweat to death, I’m sure. Our climate is changing due to the rest of the world, and we’re the ones who suffer.” I can’t find any hard data, in an admittedly cursory search of the internet, that indicates that the temperatures in Bengal and Bangladesh are getting warmer, and the idea that hot weather is caused by “climate change” produced in Western nations is hotly disputed. However, a Headmaster in the Sunderban islands might very well believe that his perspiration can be blamed on climate change.

Other than that little glitch, I thought the story was a delight. Neel and his sister work together to thwart the evil Gupta, who wants to capture the tiger cub, escaped from a wildlife reserve, and sell him on the black market. Neel, at the beginning of the story, is a boy who would rather play than learn math and who doesn’t understand the great contribution he could make to his family’s economic well-being if he were to work hard to earn a scholarship to a good school. By the end of the story, Neel begins to comprehend that his father’s ambitions for him are good, and Neel’s father also learns that even the scholarship and a good education for his son are not worth the price of losing one’s integrity.

The setting is described so beautifully in this book that I wanted to hop on an airplane and go see the Sunderbans. “Home for him (Neel) was the hiss of his father’s boat as it slipped through the deltas, golpata branches swaying in the monsoon rains, and the evening smell of jasmine flowers near his house mingling with green chilies and fresh ilish fish simmering in mustard-seed oil. Need had climbed all the tall palm trees, waded in the creeks, and foraged for wild guavas in every corner of the mangrove forest.”

In her acknowledgements, Mitali Perkins writes that “many of my writing themes emerge from reflection on the parables of Jesus. This book is based on the story about the talents given to three stewards (Matthew 25:14-30).” Neel certainly does learn to use the gifts that he has been given instead of burying them in a cycle of fear and insecurity. And his father, although tempted to give in to the need to take any opportunity to pull his family out of poverty, steps up to take responsibility for his own gifts and duties as a citizen of the larger community.

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

Before there were “steampunk” and “alternate history” and multiple volume fantasy series in children’s books, there was Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence, made up of twelve middle grade novels “set in an imaginary period of English history which never took place: the reign of King James III, in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, when England was still sadly plagued by wolves.”

Black Hearts in Battersea is the second book in the series. Joan Aiken’s website, created by her daughter Lizza Aiken, is full of treasures, including this bibliography of the over 100 books that Ms. Aiken wrote. The Wolves sequence in order consists of:

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Black Hearts in Battersea
Night Birds on Nantucket
The Stolen Lake
The Cuckoo Tree
Dido and Pa
Is (Is Underground)
Cold Shoulder Road
Limbo Lodge (Dangerous Games)
Midwinter Nightingale
The Witch of Clatteringshaws
The Whispering Mountain
(prequel to the series)

Black Hearts is a great stand-alone story, but it probably makes more sense and carries more depth if you read the books in order. I’ve read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and reading Black Hearts made me want to go back and re-read it and then read all of the others in the series, something that not too many contemporary fantasy series can inspire me to commit to. If you like Maryrose Wood’s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series or perhaps Leon Garfield’s atmospheric and very British historical fiction, the Wolves sequence might be just up your alley.

Many of the characters who dominate the later books in the series are introduced or developed in Black Hearts, including Simon the orphan, his good friend Sophie, and Dido Twite the ragamuffin offspring of Simon’s neglectful and suspicious landlords. The story also features ships and piracy, bombs and plots, a very useful tapestry, and a rose-colored hot air balloon.

Joan Aiken was born on September 4, 1924 in Sussex, England. She grew up in a country village with a mother who “decided that I’d learn more if she taught me herself than if I went away to school” and an American father, Conrad Aiken, who was a Pulitzer-prize winning poet and author himself. Joan’s parents divorced when she was a child, and her mother married another author, Martin Armstrong. Ms. Aiken wrote books for children and adults, and she received the Guardian Award for Children’s Fiction in 1969 and the Mystery Writers’ of America Poe Award in in 1972. She died in 2004. The last two books in the Wolves sequence were published posthumously.