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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.

Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak

This 89-page little gem of a story takes place in Corfu, a Greek island in the Mediterranean, and it’s about a boy and his donkey. Well, it’s really his grandfather’s donkey. The boy Mikis, however, is the one who names the donkey Tsaki and the one who cares for Tsaki when he is hurt and the one who insists on building Tsaki a new stable and the one who finds Tsaki a lady-friend.

This one reminded me of Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil, a 1953 Newbery honor book: Mediterranean island, simple family life and family dynamics, children exploring the island and learning about their heritage and their place in their culture. Mikis and the Donkey also won an award from the ALSC, the Batchelder Award for children’s books originally published in another language and translated into English.

Anyway, it’s a lovely book, and I wish I had a copy for my library. It’s definitely going on my wishlist.

Genuine Sweet by Faith Harkey

I think this book, about “a small-town girl with big-time magic”, a middle grade novel that hardly mentions God and never references prayer as such, has something important to say about prayer and the way we relate to God and his generosity and grace, nevertheless. I’m just not sure I completely understood what it had to say, even though there’s a chapter at the end in which Miss Genuine Sweet tries to wrap it all up in a great big bow and present The Lesson(s) to the reader who’s made it all the way to the end of the story.

Genuine Sweet finds out near the beginning of the story that she has inherited the family shine for wish-fetching. Like her mother (deceased) and her grandmother before her, Genuine is a wish-fetcher. Gram tells Genuine: “Wish fetchers are real. The underlings of angels, my ma used to say, with humbler clothes.”

Of course there are rules. The most important rule is that “wish fetchers can’t grant their own wishes.” And they only grant “good-hearted wishes”, not wishes for revenge or evil gain at the expense of others. Wish fetchers draw down magic from the stars and find a way to grant other people’s wishes.

So Genuine Sweet, twelve year old inhabitant of the very small and isolated town of Sass, Georgia, becomes a wish fetcher. And it’s not long before the whole town is in an uproar over Genuine’s ability to give people what they want and need with her wish biscuits, made out of liquid starlight and special miracle flour. And Genuine wonders what good it does to grant other people’s wishes when her drunken Pa is unemployed, she and her family are about to starve, and the electric is about to be turned off because they can’t pay their bill.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but turn Genuine’s wish-fetching into a metaphor for prayer in my mind. What good does it do to pray for other people when it seems as if I have needs and wants of my own that God isn’t satisfying? How do we know how to pray and what to pray for? If we try to help others will our own desires be granted somehow in the end? What if the one you’re wishing for/praying for doesn’t want to be healed/strengthened/given whatever it you’re asking for on their behalf? Should you wish a good wish or pray a good prayer for someone who doesn’t want it? Jesus actually told us to ask God for our daily bread and for His provision for other needs, but sometimes (most times?) His answer to those sorts of prayers comes in the form of our own hard work and ingenuity. What if our prayers go unanswered?

At least one of the conclusions that Genuine Sweet comes to after all her adventures in wish-fetching is that “there’s nothing in the whole world—except our own selves–that can keep us from our good.” Her conclusion sounds a lot like a secularized version of a Bible verse I know: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:28-29)

I really enjoyed the story and the writing and the thoughts that the book brought to mind. If you read it, I’d be interested to hear what you think. Leave me a comment.

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.

Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas

What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be an American when your own country’s government distrusts you, mistreats you, and sends you to a relocation camp far from home?

Tomi Itano lives in California with her mother, her father, and her two brothers. Her father grows the best strawberries around. Tomi is a Girl Scout, and her older brother Roy plays clarinet in a high school band called the Jivin’ Five. Her little brother loves baseball. But all that all-American normality is about to change after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

Now Tomi’s jovial father is arrested as a spy, and Tomi, and her shy, reserved mother, and her brothers are sent first to a temporary camp in Santa Anita and then to Tallgrass, a made-up name for a Japanese relocation camp in Colorado (the real camp in the desert of Colorado was called Amache). Will Tomi’s mother, Sumiko, be able to take charge of the family while her father is away? Where is Tomi’s father, and when will he come back? Will Tomi learn to accept life at Tallgrass, or will she become bitter like others who only see the injustice of their situation and cannot seem to enjoy anything about their life as it is?

It’s another take on the Japanese internment camps, and I suppose it’s just as appropriate and needed as any other book on any other aspect of World War II, but I am growing tired of the sub-genre. Particularly, I am tired of books about the Japanese relocation camps that have nothing new to say about the admittedly shameful episode in American history. However, I am fifty-seven years old, and I’ve read about it all before. For a fictional introduction to the subject, this book was not bad at all. If it had been the first or even the second book I ever read about the Japanese internment camps, I probably would have liked it a lot more than I did.

See also:
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. (memoir)
Journey To Topaz: A Story Of The Japanese-American Evacuation by Yoshiko Uchida. (memoir)
The Fences Between Us by Kirby Larson. (fiction)
Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans during World War II by Martin W. Sandler. (nonfiction)
I am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment by Jerry Stanley. (nonfiction)
Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata. (fiction)
A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. (fiction)
Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss. (biography)
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki. (memoir)
The Bracelet by Yoshido Uchida. (picture book fiction)

Walking Home by Eric Walters

This middle grade novel, published in Canada and set in Kenya, has wonderful themes about forgiveness and responsibility and family loyalty and trust and the power of imagination. I don’t know how popular stories set in foreign countries are among the target audience, but this one is a great read.

Thirteen year old Muchoki and his younger sister, Jata, can hardly believe what has become of their lives. Only weeks ago, they lived in a bustling Kenyan village, going to school, playing soccer with friends, and helping at their parents’ store. But sudden political violence has killed their father and destroyed their home. Now Muchoki, Jata and their malaria-stricken mother live in a refugee camp. Will Muchoki be able to care for Jata when tragedy strikes the little family yet again?

The book tells a “journey story”. Muchoki and Jata walk across Kenya, through the great city of Nairobi, and to their grandparents’ home in Kambaland. But the book is about much more than cross-country hiking. As they travel, Muchoki in particular, who has seen and experienced terrible things when the family was forced out of their village, learns to trust people again, even people from the tribes that were his enemies and who killed his father and burned the family’s village. This trust, and even the beginning embers of forgiveness, do not come easily. Muchoki is often torn between his responsibility to protect his sister Jata, and his desire, even need, to ask for help and depend on adults around him to assist him in reaching his grandfather’s home. Muchoki is right to be careful and right to trust, and the book does an excellent job of showing how this young man, wise beyond his years, manages to balance the two. The book even hints at Muchoki’s loss of faith in the God who allowed such terrible things to happen to him and to others and his steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

In light of the terrible events in Kenya this past week and the other atrocities that keep filling our news feeds, this story is a good one to help children and adults begin their own journey of processing, trusting, caring, and forgiving.

Middle Grade Middling

All Four Stars by Tara Daiman is cute middle grade fiction about a budding restaurant critic and gourmet cook whose parents only know fast food and microwave cooking. The protagonist, eleven year old Gladys Gatsby, is rather deceitful and dangerously inventive, but she has parents who are unbelievably misguided. Not only will they not allow her to cook in their kitchen at all after an unfortunate accident with a blowtorch (understandable), they won’t allow her to read cookbooks, watch cooking shows, or eat anything other than the fast food and poorly cooked meals that they put together.
story is funny, a bit Wodehousian, and filled with great appreciation for excellent food. However, Gladys is something of a snob, and her parents are myopic in their adherence to poorly prepared junk food. Gladys doesn’t set a good example for middle grade readers when she disobeys her parents to sneak in a few cooking sessions and some reading of recipes, much less when she ditches a Broadway play to go by herself to the gourmet dessert restaurant down the street. But it’s all in good fun, and who’s looking for a role model in a humorous entertainment novel?

The Question of Miracles by Elana Arnold is an interesting story about the death of a friend and the possibility of miracles and an afterlife. Iris has lost her best friend in a car accident, and her parents have moved her to a new town to get her away from the trauma of the tragedy. But Iris hates Oregon where it rains all the time, and she still thinks about and misses her friend Sarah a lot. In fact, Iris is convinced that Sarah could be still there somehow, as a ghost or something, wanting to communicate with Iris if Iris could just figure out how to get a miracle.
All answers to the question of whether miracles are possible and whether Iris’s friend who died could possibly communicate with her after death are left open —except the Christian answers to those question which are never entertained seriously and (when a Catholic priest tries to explain that God answers different prayers in different ways) given short shrift. Also a few casual misuses of God’s name are disconcerting and unnecessary.

Listen, Slowly by Thanha Lai is a middle grade novel set in Vietnam, and I generally like seeing how children in other cultures are both like and unlike American children. However, Mai, the young lady who is the main character in the story, is a California girl through and through, even though she’s forced by her (Vietnamese immigrant) parents to go to Vietnam for the summer to help her grandmother navigate the search for what really happened to Mai’s grandfather during the Vietnam War.
Twelve year old Mai is spoiled, precocious, worldly, and obnoxious. Although she predictably improves by the end of the story, some of the shenanigans she pulls are too much for my “delicate” sensibilities. Example: she tells all the girls in the Vietnamese village where she is visiting that all American girls wear thong underwear and then helps them to turn their underwear into uncomfortable thongs. I just didn’t like Mai, and I had trouble sympathizing with her predicament of being stuck in Vietnam for the summer when she really wanted to be chasing boys on the beach.

Master Cornhill by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Eloise Jarvis McGraw is the author of three other books that we have either read, or read aloud, in out homeschool in connection with out history studies. Her historical fiction for middle grade readers is challenging, with complex characters and vivi depictions of time and place. The Golden Goblet and Mara, Daughter of the Nile are set in ancient Egypt, and Moccasin Trail is a story of the American West and the trappers and adventurers who opened up the frontier in the early nineteenth century.

Master Cornhill is set in a very specific time and place: London in 1665-1666. The Great Plague in the summer of 1665 drives eleven year old Michael Cornhill from his home with loving foster parents in London to live in the countryside with not-so-loving Puritan friends. When the danger of the plague dies down, Michael takes the opportunity to return to london, alone, even though he knows that his foster parents are probably dead. What he doesn’t realize is that the friends and neighbors that he relies on to take him in and get him started on a path toward a trade or an education are also all gone, victims of the plague. Michael finds himself alone, an orphan with no skills to sell and no money to keep himself fed and clothed.

The story is about how Michael finds friends who help him, how he manages to weather difficult circumstances such as impressment for the Dutch War and the Great Fire of London, and most of all, how he finds direction and a purpose for his life. The atmosphere and buildings and culture of seventeenth century London come alive in this beautifully written story, from the gangs of soldiers impressing all available men into the King’s navy to fight the Dutch to St. Paul’s Cathedral where the business of London is conducted in the nooks and crannies of the great church courtyard to London Bridge lined with houses and shops to the Great Fire itself in September 1666. Ms. McGraw makes history relevant and interesting to readers of the twenty-first century by following an eleven year old boy from 400 years ago as he finds friends and allies in the streets of London. I could imagine my children in Michael’s place, and although it was a dangerous life, Michael survives, by the grace of God and by the innocence and persistence with which he faces his new circumstances.

Ms. McGraw’s books are probably better read aloud to middle grade to junior high students, since she doesn’t pander to the controlled vocabulary or the push for perpetual motion and action in contemporary fiction for children. Motivated readers who enjoy history can read it on their own, there is a lot of period detail and slang that will trip some readers up and enthrall others. Count me in the enthralled group.

I looked on Amazon for a good nonfiction “living book” about the Great Fire of London, but I didn’t really find anything that looked very readable. G.A. Henty has a book about the Great Fire, When London Burned: a Story of Restoration Times and the Great Fire, but I find his books rather hit or miss. Some are good enough, and others are too long, too preachy, and/or too slow, even for me. I recommend Master Cornhill for a good introduction to the time period and to the event.

Then, you could read an excerpt from Pepys’ Diary, where he tells about his experience during the Great Fire.

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Five Things That Made Me Smile on February 11-12, 2015:
1. I got a compliment on one of my grown children, something I knew but was glad to hear that others recognize.

2. I was asked to speak at a local homeschool “expo” in May and give a forty-five minute workshop on “living books” (like Master Cornhill) and reading aloud as the backbone of homeschooling. I’m really excited to have this opportunity to share my love of excellent books with an audience of new and sometimes struggling homeschoolers. My themes so far: “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” and “Build your family culture around books.”

3. I am learning the value and discipline of silence. Enough said.

4. Betsy-Bee will be sixteen years old tomorrow. What a blessing she is!

5. This blog post by Bible study leader Beth Moore: It’s Prayer. That’s the thing.

“It’s time we quit falling asleep in prayer. It’s time we quit practicing a prayer routine that bores us to tears. It’s time our quiet times ceased to be quiet. There are battles to be won. Works to be done. The kinds which only come through prayer, prayer, and more prayer.”

More 2015 Titles I’d Like to Read

From these lists (Thanks, Phil) and other sources:

All Fall Down by Ally Carter. YA fiction. Grace has come back home to Embassy Row in order to solve the mystery of her mother’s death. In the process, she uncovers an international conspiracy of unsettling proportions, and must choose her friends and watch her foes carefully if she and the world are to be saved. (January)

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan. “Lost and alone a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.” ~Goodreads. (February)

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen. Beaty and the Beast, except the Beast is a girl. (February)

Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen. First book in a new series, set in ancient Rome, by the author of The Ascendance Trilogy. (February)

Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell. Subtitled “a novel of the O.K. Corral,” continuing the story she began in Doc. (March)

The Drop Box: How 500 Abandoned Babies, an Act of Compassion, and a Movie Changed My Life by Brian Ivie with Ted Kluck. (March)

The Island of Dr. Libris by Chris Grabenstein. (March) MG fantasy by the author of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.

Jack: The True Story of Jack & The Beanstalk by Liesl Shurliff. (April) MG fantasy.

The Water and the Wild by K.E. Ormsbee. (April) MG fantasy.

It’s A Long Story by Willie Nelson. Memoir. (May) Willie’s memoir.

The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest by Melanie Dickerson. Robin Hood-character is a really a girl named Odette, daughter of a wealthy merchant by day, huntress by night. (May)

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski. The husband-and-wife team chronicle the writers’ group The Inklings, whose members featured J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. (June)

Valiant by Sarah McGuire. Fairy tale reworking with a girl heroine. (June)

Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy Of Faith by Barnabas Piper. (July)

The Hollow Boy (Lockwood & Co. #3) by Jonathan Stroud. (September)

Short Takes on Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta
Mr. Scaletta’s previous books, Mudville and Mamba Point, were both good solid middle grade reads, and The Winter of the Robots continues on in that groove. If your child is into robots or robot wars or science-y adventure tales, then The Winter of the Robots is a just the ticket. I got lost in some of the science of how to build and operate a robot, and I had to believe pretty hard to swallow some of the events that take place in the novel (kids build a self-propelled robot out of an old car?), but I bet most kids could believe it without even stretching.

Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey. I like the idea of secret society of “lybrarians” who are given the task of making the world, past and present, safe for the written word and the free expression of ideas. And I liked the opening two paragraphs a lot:

“Twelve-year-old Dorothea Barnes was thoroughly un-chosen, not particularly deserving, bore no marks of destiny, lacked any sort of criminal genius, and could claim no supernatural relations. Furthermore, she’d never been orphaned, kidnapped, left for dead in the wilderness, or bitten by anything more bloodthirsty than her little sister.
Don’t even begin to entertain consoling thoughts of long flaxen curls or shiny tresses black as ravens’ wings. Dorrie’s plain brown hair could only be considered marvelous in its ability to twist itself into hopeless tangles. She was neither particularly tall or small, thick or thin, pale or dark. She had parents who loved her, friends enough, and never wanted for a meal. So, why, you may wonder, tell a story about a girl like this at all?”

However, the story sort of meanders along and doesn’t get much better than that opening gambit.

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This Harry Potter-ish novel about a boy who is sent to magic school to learn to control his magical abilities is well written and intriguing, but the ending is horrendous. After another episode in which a different character lies about being abused by a teacher, our hero ends up concealing a secret so horrible that he cannot tell anyone about it, believing that his very soul is evil, and that no one will help him or believe him or love him if he tells. That’s creepy and disturbing.

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell. This Norwegian fantasy is written by a Norwegian author, but I don’t see any translator credit. So I suppose it was written in English. Nevertheless, there’s a culture gap as far as I’m concerned. Lindelin Rosenquist (lovely name) is the Twistrose (rosa torquata), sent to the land of Sylver to save the Petlings and Wilders there from imminent danger. However, she and her own special petling, Rufocanus, a redback vole, spend a lot of time wandering about and getting into fixes, then taking turns rescuing one another. They talk about having a plan, but the plan is rather muddled, and various characters show up and disappear randomly. I think I missed something in the non-translation, but maybe other readers will be able to think more Scandinavian than I do.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones. Aileen and her Aunt Beck, the most powerful Wise Woman on the island of Skarr, are sent on a journey to rescue a prince. The characters in this novel do nothing but argue and undermine one another while they travel on a mission that none of them really believes in. The arguing isn’t even witty or funny. It’s a posthumous novel, completed by Ursula Jones (Diana Wynne Jones’ sister). I think the idea had potential, but someone dropped the ball.

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These books were 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.