The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

“Varian Johnson lists his inspirations for this book as Ocean’s 11, The Westing Game, Sneakers, The Thomas Crowne Affair, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” I would, guessing, add the movies Star Wars and The Sting, not to mention a few pick-up basketball games along the way, but I could be mistaken about those particular influences.

Jackson Greene has reformed, changed his ways, and sworn off all scheming, finagling, conning, and pranking. When the girl you like (Gaby) sees you brush lips with another cutie and totally misinterprets the situation, and when the principal catches you breaking into his office, you had better call it quits as far as con games are concerned. Even if it’s for a good cause. Then again, maybe if Keith Sinclair, Jackson’s arch enemy and nemesis of all good clubs and organizations at Maplewood Middle School, plans to run for Student Council against that same girl, Gaby, the one Jackson kinda sorta likes—then, maybe, a small benevolent interference, just to keep Keith from stealing the election, is in order. What could it hurt?

Mr. Johnson’s middle grade (upper middle grade since it has lots of tame boy/girl stuff) heist novel got a boost on Twitter earlier this spring and summer with people using the hash tags #weneeddiversebooks and #greatgreenechallenge, the latter tag referring to a friendly competition between independent bookstores to handsell Mr. Johnson’s book. The book does feature “diverse” characters, Asian American, African American, and Hispanic, and it is a a good solid summer read. As far as kid caper books are concerned, I preferred I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora, but Acampora’s Mockingbird doesn’t have quite the same “diversity factor”. (Catholic characters and bookish characters don’t count as “diversity” the same way people of color do. Who makes up these rules, anyway?) Still, reading The Great Greene Heist was an enjoyable way to spend a summer evening, and I recommend it to fans of Paul Acampora’s book or of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society books.

Ocean of Fire by T. Neill Anderson

Ocean of Fire: The Burning of Columbia, 1865 by T. Neill Anderson.

If you’re a Civil War buff, even a little inclined in that direction, you must read this somewhat fictionalized story of General Sherman’s capture of the city of Columbia, South Carolina during his “March to the Sea” and the subsequent conflagration that burned the city to the ground. I say “fictionalized” because the author has filled in dialogue and even thoughts that he could not be privy to but could reasonably assume from the available sources. However, the events and characters in the book are real, and their actions are as verified as possible.

Mr. Anderson says that he “relied heavily on the moving, haunting, and tragic first-person accounts of Emma LeConte, Joseph Le Conte, and the Reverend Anthony Toomer Porter.” Indeed, the book basically focuses on the stories of Emma, her father Joseph, and the Rev. Porter. And their stories were moving, haunting, and tragic. I kept picturing the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind as I read about how Columbia burned in much the same way as her Georgia counterpart.

General Sherman, who famously said “war is hell” and who determined to make sure it truly was for the areas of the South that he conquered, has a lot to answer for in the hereafter. He and General Ulysses S. Grant “believed that the Civil War would end only if the Confederacy’s strategic, economic, and psychological capacity for warfare were decisively broken.” (Wikipedia, Sherman’s March to the Sea) Perhaps they were right. The girl, Emma, is pictured in this book as harboring a “white-hot hatred” for the Yankees,and none of the Southerners whose stories are featured are ready to surrender, either before or after the burning of their city which they, of course, blame on the drunken Yankee army. There is some possibility that the Confederates themselves were responsible for starting the fire. No one really knows, and the book doesn’t settle the question.

Another mystery is left unsettled, and I would really like to know the answer: who was the mysterious soldier named Charles Davis? Was he possibly a Confederate spy or did he work for the Yankees? After the city’s collapse he seems to have mysteriously disappeared. Where did he go?

Ocean of Fire is T. Neill Anderson’s second book of his Horrors of History series. The first book in the series, which I have not read but should, is City of the Dead: Galveston Hurricane, 1900.

Binny for Short by Hilary McKay

British author Hilary McKay specializes in stories of unsupervised, even neglected, children. Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Caddie Ever After, Forever Rose, and Permanent Rose make up a series of books featuring one of the most dysfunctional functioning familes in children’s literature. The father, Bill, is absent most of the time, and the mom, Eve, is an artist who spends her days and most of her nights in a backyard shed where she paints and dozes and daydreams. The children run wild, free range as it were. The other book that I know by Hilary McKay is a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, A Little Princess, called Wishing for Tomorrow. McKay’s follow-up features the poor little neglected girls of Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies.

And now there’s Binny for Short, Ms. McKay’s latest. Eleven year old Binny has a mom (dad’s deceased) and an older sister and a younger brother. However, mom is awfully busy working to support the family, and she’s a little lackadaisical about supervising Binny. Which is fine with Binny. Binny spends her time exploring the seaside town she lives in along with her favorite enemy, Gareth, the boy next door. Or she looks for Max, her long lost dog. Or she tries to convince herself that Aunty Violet has not come back from the dead to haunt the house she left to Binny in her will. Or she works on the excursion boat that takes tourists to see the seals. Binny is never bored.

Binny’s six year old brother, James, is even more unbored. He grows poisoned lettuce, chases chickens, entertains the old people at the nursing home, wears his purple and pink wetsuit to the beach, sprays the back fence, and generally acts like a creative, thoughtful, free range kid. I’m pretty much in favor of the free range kids philosophy myself, even if I do find it difficult to put into practice given my place of abode in Major Suburbia and my kids’ personalities, pretty much introverted homebodies. However, I believe in giving kids room to roam and explore and learn the world on their own terms. (It just so happens that my kids prefer a world mostly mediated by books and movies, kind of like their mom and dad.)

Anyway, if you’re OK with children in your books or in real life who explore the neighborhood freely and who are allowed to figure out their place in that world by themselves for the most part, you’ll like Binny for Short. In other words, if you’ve read the Casson family books by Hilary McKay, and you’re OK with those children, you’ll probably enjoy Binny for Short. If you’re a little nervous about the whole free range kid thing, you might want to let your children at least experience it vicariously through Binny and James (and the Cassons: Cadmium, Saffron, Indigo, and Rose).

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Have I mentioned before on this blog that I don’t really care for verse novels? Yeah, I’ve said it several times.

Anyway, 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, The Crossover. Josh Bell and his twin brother, Jordan, are both basketball phenoms. Josh, the narrator of our story and author of all the poems in the book, is particularly talented, and he even has a nickname that supposedly indicates just how good he is on the court: everyone calls him “Filthy McNasty” because his “game’s acclaimed/so downright dirty, it’ll put you to shame.”

Between the basketball jargon and the rap feel to some of the poems and the high school and jazz slang, I got a little lost. But I’m not the intended audience for this book. I did like the family values and the picture of forgiveness and reconciliation that is featured. I didn’t like wandering through the verse, trying to translate it into a story.

Here’s a sample, and you can see for yourself whether The Crossover would suit you:

Basketball Rule #1

In this game of life
your family is the court
and the ball is your heart.
No matter how good you are,
no matter how down you get,
always leave
your heart
on the court.


UP by sixteen
with six seconds
showing, JB smiles,
Spins, and

SEVEN-foot shot.

What a show-off.

The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Thirteen year old Nina Ross is feeling at loose ends this summer. Her best friend, Jorie, is changing into a boy-crazy clothes horse. Her beloved grandmother, the only person who really got Nina, died last year. Nina’s parents, divorce lawyers, work all the time. And her brother Matt is consistently either holed up in his room or gone to work.

Even though Nina isn’t “the type of person who goes out of her way to help people,” she decides to start a project: one good anonymous deed, small but remarkable, each day for the sixty-five days of summer vacation. Will it make a difference? Will Nina’s project change the neighborhood? Change the world?

This middle grade novel told a really sweet story, maybe too sweet for some readers, but I enjoyed it. Nina surprises herself and is surprised by the new truths she discovers about her neighbors and about her own family. The pace of these revelations and of the story itself is just right–not thriller pace but just enough suspense and charm to keep me reading. (There is mention in the story of a possible kumiho (Korean fox spirit) and a supposed ghost, but you can take or leave those possibilities.) All in all, The Summer I Saved the World . . . is a pretty good and encouraging summer read, a remarkable good deed and inspiration in itself.

The author tells about her purpose in writing the story in the end note:

“I started this story with a question: does doing good really do any good? Random acts of kindness are everywhere, but I wondered, so they really have an effect on people? Can small acts of goodness change our world?
The answer to my question—does doing good really do any good—I will always hope, is a resounding and undeniable yes!”

Well, I would say, yes and no. Yes, doing good is good, and of course, even small deeds of kindness and encouragement change the atmosphere of any neighborhood or workplace or home. The Bible says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) Also, there are all the “one anothers”:

Bear with each other and forgive one another. (Colossians 3:13)
Be kind and compassionate to one another. (Ephesians 4:32)
Love one another. (John 13:34)
Be devoted to one another in love. (Romans 12:10)
Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
Encourage one another and build each other up. (I Thessalonians 5:11)
Spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24)
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
Greet one another with a holy kiss. (2 Corinthians 13:12)
Be at peace with one another. (Mark 9:50)
Serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)
Receive one another. (Romans 15:7)
Rejoice or weep with one another. (Romans 12:15)
Admonish one another. (Romans 15:14)
Care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:25)
Pray for one another. (James 5:16)
Accept one another. (Romans 14:1; 15:7)
Be truthful with one another. (Colossians 3:9)
Confess your faults to one another. (James 5:16)

If even just Christians obeyed all of those commands, the world would definitely be a “saltier” and better place. However, the world is made up of sinful people (like me), some of whom are unrepentantly evil, and it’s not going to be redeemed and transformed by small acts of “random” kindness. Random kindness is good, but it isn’t enough to save the world. It’s going to take something BIG to change the world: a large act of perfect love and sacrifice.

I wonder what THAT could be?

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

“Child, you do not forgive because the person who wronged deserves it. You misunderstand the point of forgiveness entirely. The only cage that a grudge creates is around the holder of that grudge. Forgiveness is not saying that the person who hurt you was right, or has earned it, or is allowed to hurt you again. All forgiveness means is that you will carry on without the burdens of rage and hatred.”

What a lovely parable about forgiveness and friendship and compromise and negotiation. And it’s all built upon the framework of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. When Sand wakes up in the cold fireplace of the Sundered Castle, he has no idea how he got there. Nor can he understand why everything, every single thing, in the castle is torn apart: floors, doors, furniture, linens, tools, everything. It couldn’t be the result of an earthquake, the story that Sand has heard all of his life. Earthquakes don’t tear both hammers and heavy iron anvils in half.

Now Sand finds himself trapped inside the Sundered Castle with a hedge of vicious thorns all around, and he does the only thing he knows how to do. He begins to use the forge and his skills as the son of a blacksmith to mend what has been broken.

This reworking of the story of Sleeping Beauty is aimed at middle grade readers, but it works for older children and adults, too. Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment is more for adults, and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose is a YA adaptation. It’s good to have such a solid Sleeping Beauty story for the younger set.

The book does use the idea of medieval Catholic “saints” as semi-magical figures who offer guidance and answer prayers. This depiction of mythical saints may be uncomfortable for both Catholics who believe in praying to real saints and Protestants who are uneasy with the entire concept. However, if you don’t mind a couple of fictitious saints inhabiting the pages of the fairy tale, then The Castle Behind Thorns is uplifting and authentic at the same time.

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

A best-selling author of adult women’s novels and a picture book author, who happen to be married to each other, team up to write a middle grade time travel adventure. It sounds as if it might be a good idea.

However, I just don’t think they pulled it off. The plot is fine: Margaret’s only hope to save her father from dying for a crime he didn’t commit is to go back in time and stop the chain of events that turned her father’s harsh judge into a merciless tyrant. Luckily for Margaret and for her dad, time travel runs in the family, even though the family members have all made a solemn vow not to use their time-travelling abilities.

It’s not the plot; it’s the characters themselves and their motivations that are clunky and unreal. Lucas, the unjust judge, becomes a minion of the very forces and people he wanted his father to fight against, and he loses faith in his father with very little warrant. Margaret’s father is sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of little or no evidence, and the fact that the “company”, Victory Fuels, owns the town and is out to get him doesn’t really seem plausible. They’ve bought not only the whole town, but also the entire state of Arizona it seems.

The authors live in Delaware, and their concept of the backwardness of Arizona, both in 1938 and in 2014, just doesn’t ring true for me. Hove they been to Arizona? Of course, I’ve never been to Arizona myself, so I could be wrong. Maybe Arizona is just full of towns owned by energy companies who are evilly fracking away the environment and railroading whistle blowers into long prison sentences on trumped up charges. After all, it’s Arizona. Villainous energy companies. Anti-environmentalists. Corrupt justice system.

Then, to top it all off, Margaret and her friends Josh and Charlie are able to effect a complete turn around in the judge’s character and actions with an insignificant little historical artifact. Just as Lucas Biggs became a father-hating minion of evil on the basis of very little evidence, he also repents and does a 180 without much reason to do so.

I just couldn’t swallow this one. But the time travel aspect is handled well.

Spunky Girl Spies and Tries (To Keep Hoping)

Harriet M. Welch.
Ramona Quimby.
Jo March.
Trixie Belden.
Flavia de Luce.
Nancy Drew.
Hazel Kaplansky.
Star Mackie.

One could go on listing spunky girl heroines, wannabe spies and detectives, and just generally nonconformist and stubborn females in children’s fiction for a long time. (In fact, Jen Robinson made just such a list of 200 “cool girls from children’s literature” a few years ago.)

I read Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera and The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore back to back, and the female protagonists, Star and Hazel, will forever be associated and somewhat confused with one another in my mind. Star and Hazel definitely fit into the cool, spunky female character category. If you read one of these two books and like it, you’ll probably like the other.

Hazel Kaplansky of Spy Catchers is a girl sleuth who models her detective activities on the famous Nancy Drew. Set in 1953, Spy Catchers of Maple Hill has as its historical background and key conflict the Cold War and the Red Scare of the 1950′s. Hazel is determined to find and expose the “Commie” spies that she is sure are conspiring to infiltrate and destroy Maple Hill, Vermont—if not the entire United States.

Hazel is relentless and somewhat arrogant in her search for truth, justice, and the American way. “What’s the point of modesty?” she says at one point to her friend and fellow detective, Samuel. “I’ll be modest when other folks start to realize how remarkable I am.”

By the end of the book Hazel has come to a few realizations herself—and received a bit of a comedown when she finds out that her unfounded suspicions have hurt good people. However, the last few pages of the story show Hazel, as determined and undaunted as ever, spinning new theories and visualizing herself as “Hazel Kaplansky, star student, holder of knowledge, solver of mysteries, and future double agent.”

Star Mackie in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel is just as stubborn in her sense of right and wrong and her quest to make sense of her world as Hazel. Star is a little younger than Hazel, and in spite of Star’s somewhat dysfunctional family life, she’s a bit more innocent than Hazel. Star’s father disappeared when she was a baby. Her mother says her dad is a no-good bum and won’t let Star even communicate with him. Her sister Winter, whom Star idolizes, has been kicked out of school for writing horror stories with lots of “characters in them [that] have the misfortune of dying horrible deaths, like having all of the blood explode out of their bodies” and a “family of inbred mutant cannibals” who happen to have the same names as her classmates.

The whole family, Star, her mom, and Winter, have moved from Oregon to California in search of a fresh start, and their home is “the pink-tinted trailer with the flamingo hot glued to the roof” in Treasure Trailers trailer park. Star (like Hazel) is unpopular with her new classmates because of her trailer park origins and general lack of conformity, and so she tries starting a club to make new friends. But Star, again like Hazel, is rather bossy and stubborn, and friendships are hard to initiate.

I liked the fact that both of these books feature imperfect young protagonists, and not everything is resolved in the end of either book. Hazel doesn’t become subdued and older but wiser. Star doesn’t really connect with her father, and her new friends are, well, a little flaky and unreliable. Nevertheless, as Star would say in imitation of Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a Ferris Wheel. . . Hope becomes A Thing/ That, When you’re getting Off,/ You take With you to Bring.”

There’s still hope for Hazel Kaplansky and Star Mackie to grow into strong young women with wisdom tempered by experience. And they’re the kind of girls who will experience a lot because they aren’t going to sit around and wait for life to come to them. If you’re a fan of Harriet the Spy or Flavia de Luce, you might very well enjoy either or both of these middle grade novels.

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.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1

This verse kept running through my mind as I read The Night Gardener, an Edgar Allan Poe-like story about two Irish orphan children who become entangled in an English family, the Windsors, and the curse that binds them to a crumbling house built around a spooky, twisted snare of a tree that captures the Windsors and their new Irish servants and threatens to carry them to their doom.

Mr. Auxier begins his story with two quotations, one from Milton’s Paradise Lost and the other from Aesop:

“Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe.” ~John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1.

“We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified.” ~Aesop.

And there you have a summary of what the book is about. Molly and her little brother Kip find that having their wishes come true is a trap rather than a gift, and they and the members of the Windsor family are embroiled in a ever escalating game to try to make their wishes, for food and money and beauty and heroism and family and even healing, bring them true and lasting joy. However, they find that “the sin that so easily entangles”, another description for idolatry and the attempt to find happiness in things of this earth, is not a fair substitute for a real home or real family. In fact, Satan, depicted here as a night gardener in a top hat, cheats. When he “gives gifts” there are always evil strings attached.

If I’ve given you the impression that this novel is a sermon in disguise, it’s not. In fact, I’m not sure how much of the Christian truth embedded in the story is meant to be and how much is just the mark of a good true story. For instance, the story never identifies the Night Gardener as Satan; that’s my interpretation. Nevertheless, Molly and Kip will steal your heart and just as Poe’s best horror stories tend to reveal a bit of truth about the deceitfulness of the human heart and the sinfulness of the human condition, this children’s horror story is full of truth, too. Be careful what you wish for—and from whom you take a gift.