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A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck

Alfred Hitchcock films are some of our family’s favorites. Engineer Husband says Vertigo is a masterpiece. Brown Bear Daughter likes The Lady Vanishes. Betsy-Bee and my sister say they are both fans of Rear Window. I rather like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief, only partially due to my crush on Cary Grant.

Author Jim Averbeck harbors a fondness for “Hitch”, too, and he’s made the famous director a central character in his debut middle grade mystery novel, A Hitch at the Fairmont. After his aspiring actress mother drives her car off a cliff, eleven year old Jim Fair is a double orphan. His horrible Aunt Edith, his sole surviving relative, takes him to live with her at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, but when Aunt Edith disappears, Alfred Hitchcock is the only adult Jim can trust to help him find his awful aunt and avoid the social worker who wants to take him to an orphanage.

There are lots of reverences and allusions to the canon of Hitchcock films as Jim and Mr. Hitchcock careen through their own film-worthy adventure. It’s San Francisco, and one chapter takes place at the Mission Dolores. Also a ghost lady lures the crooks out of hiding. (Vertigo) Jim gets a ransom note embedded in a news article titled “Birds Terrorize Coastal Town” (The Birds). Jim and Hitch briefly mull a theory that Aunt Edith might have been carried out of the hotel, dismembered, in several suitcases or trunks, and another part of the action takes place in a building that is a “camera obscure” that the two use to spy on their suspect (Rear Window). Hitchcock talks to the social worker from the shower while pretending to be Aunt Edith shaving his/her leg (shades of Psycho!). In The Lady Vanishes and in North by Northwest, the police disbelieve the witnesses to a kidnapping/disappearance, and the same thing happens in A Hitch at the Fairmont. And Jim and his mentor Hitchcock meet the kidnappers in a church while the congregation is singing a hymn, similar to the Ambrose Chapel scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I’m sure that fans will find several more echoes of Hitchcock films as they read A Hitch at the Fairmont, and middle grade readers who are not familiar with the movies Mr. Hitchcock directed might find this book an entertaining introduction to Hitch. I thought the book was fun and intriguing, just as Alfred Hitchcock’s movies were.

Heidi Grows Up by Charles Tritten

At Half-Price Books in San Antonio (which by the way is a very old-fashioned edition of Half-Price with lots of nooks and cubbyholes and corners and old books), I found a copy of translator Charles Tritten’s sequel to the classic Heidi by Johanna Spyri, called Heidi Grows Up. I remember Tritten’s two sequels, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children quite fondly from my teen years of reading, and I would love to have a copy of Heidi’s Children to go with my new/old copy of Heidi Grows Up.

So, I re-read this story of Heidi’s teen years. In the story, first Heidi agrees to go away form her beloved mountains to boarding school so that she can be educated away from the cruel schoolmaster in Dorfli and so that she can develop her musical abilities with violin lessons from a professional teacher. Heidi manages to win the affections of almost all of the girls in her new school, just as in the original Heidi, she wins over Clara and her father and all of the Sesemann household in Frankfurt. But again just as in the original, Heidi misses her grandfather and the Alps, and in the summer she and a friend go back to spend some time in the mountains that are truly Heidi’s “natural habitat.”

After a year or so of schooling, Heidi declares her intention to return to Dorfli and teach school. She hopes to teach the children useful skills such as sewing and knitting and reading and to replace the cruel schoolmaster who has been in the habit of shutting up the children in a boarded up cloakroom-turned-dungeon for any infraction of his strict and arbitrary rules. Heidi is ultimately successful in her reform of the school at Dorfli, and in the process she manages to also a reform a young delinquent (who, of course, has a good heart and fantastic artistic ability) named Chel. The book then ends, very happily and traditionally, with a wedding.

The entire story echoes the first bookHeidi quite a bit in its plot and themes, and Tritten is said to have “adapted from her (Spyri’s) other works . . . many years after she (Spyri) died.” It is a little odd that Spyri described Heidi as having dark curly hair while Tritten portrayed the same girl with straight fair hair in Heidi Grows Up. Curiously enough, Ms. Spyri herself may have adapted Heidi from another novel that she read or heard as a child:

“In April 2010, a Swiss professorial candidate, Peter Buettner, uncovered a book written in 1830 by the German author Hermann Adam von Kamp. The 1830 story is titled “Adelaide: The Girl from the Alps” (German: Adelheide, das Mädchen vom Alpengebirge). The two stories share many similarities in plot line and imagery. Spyri biographer Regine Schindler said it was entirely possible that Spyri may have been familiar with the story as she grew up in a literate household with many books.” Wikipedia, Heidi

Heidi Grows Up forms a nice bridge between Heidi and Heidi’s Children, both of which are better and more substantial books than than this middle one. I’d like to find an affordable copy of Heidi’s Children in good to excellent condition both for my library and for my personal reading. I’d like to see if the “ending” to the story of Heidi and her grandfather, The Alm-Uncle, is as satisfying as I remember it.

Uncertain Glory by Lea Wait

Uncertain Glory is middle grade historical fiction set in Maine as the Civil War is about to begin. Joe Wood is a sixteen year old newspaper publisher, with his own printing equipment, a newspaper that is has built up a small but faithful readership, a few printing jobs on the side, and a large debt that is due in just a few days. Joe borrowed the money to buy his printing press and other materials, and now he’s working hard to pay back the lender.

Until now the news in Joe’s sleepy town of Wiscasset, Maine has been just that–slow and sleepy. But now, in April 1861, things are stirring. Nell, a young spiritualist, has come to town to give readings to people trying to contact their loved ones “on the other side.” And there’s talk of war as the country heads for a violent confrontation in South Carolina.

The story moved a bit slowly for me. Perhaps it was the story, or maybe just my mood. At any rate, I wasn’t drawn into the time period and the characters and their stories as I often am in the best historical fiction. Joe, his best friend Charlie, Owen the colored boy who helps out at the newspaper office, and Nell the medium were all a little insipid and dull. I would say that rather than being character-driven or plot-dirven, the story was “history-driven”, and although I like history, I didn’t find much new or exciting in the book. Others not as familiar with Civil War history or those who want a book that focuses on the role of Maine soldiers and civilians in the war might find it fascinating.

I did like the details of the work it took to publish a newspaper back in the days before computer typesetting or even linotype. It takes the boys hours and hours to set the type to print even a small newspaper:

“Even with Owen’s and Charlie’s help, it took all of Monday afternoon and evening to write up the news, set it in type, and print it on both sides of a two-page Herald.”

Then they have to go out and sell the paper door to door themselves. The amount of work it took to do anything 150 years ago must have bred patience. And now I can type up a blog post in half an hour, and I think that’s a long time.

I’d recommend Uncertain Glory to those who have an interest in the Civil War time period and to those who might enjoy the story of an enterprising young man. The story of Joe’s industry and of what it took to run a business is worthwhile and might be inspirational for some young entrepreneur of today.

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana

I thought Zane and the Hurricane, fiction set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, was kind of intense for middle grade, but Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere takes intense and tragic to another level. It’s not gruesome or gratuitous, but people do die. Some middle grade readers might find the book quite upsetting.

That said, this book does do a good job of showing how an ordinary day can turn into horror and tragedy in very little time. Along with the characters in the book —ten year old Armani, her little sister Sealy, Memaw, the twins, and the rest of the extended family— I continued to shake my head in disbelief as the family lived through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the bursting of the levee in the “Lower Nines” (Ninth Ward) of New Orleans –not to mention the aftermath of flood, crime, and disease in NOLA as the hurricane subsided.

Armani “realizes that being ten means being brave, watching loved ones die, and mustering all her strength to help her family survive this storm.” I liked Armani and her family and had no trouble believing their story was true to life. It was also sad, and –WARNING!—the ending is very sad. I won’t say the story is without that “sense of hope” that some of us look for in children’s literature in particular, but it maybe difficult for some readers to stomach.

The author, Julie Lamana, lives in Grenwell Springs, Louisiana and was working in the schools in LA as a Literacy Specialist in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. She heard lots of survivors’ stories firsthand, and I assume that some of those stories were incorporated into her novel in some form. Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is Ms. Lamana’s debut novel, although she does have a picture book, published by Outskirts Press and also set in Louisiana, called Three Little Bayou Fishermen.

“Apparently it is very difficult to talk about Hurricane Katrina in a book if you don’t include a dog.” ~Betsy Bird

Or any hurricane. Examples:
Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick.
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Juie T. Lamana.
Rain Reign by Ann Martin. Publication date: October 7, 2014. My review will appear here at Semicolon on that date, but I will say now that I highly recommend Ms. Martin’s story of a girl and her dog.
Buddy by M.H. Herlong.
Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods.
I Survived: Hurricane Katrina, 2005 by Lauren Tarshis

I don’t think I’m up for yet another dog/hurricane story (especially since I just read—and loved– an ARC of Ann Martin’s new middle grade novel, Rain Reign, about a beloved dog who gets lost in a hurricane/storm, not Katrina), so you’ll have to get more comparisons somewhere else.

Hurricane fiction and nonfiction, sans dog.

Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting by Erin Dionne

This 2014 middle grade adventure is a companion novel to the author’s Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking, a book I read and enjoyed last year when it came out. In this “14 Day Mystery” Moxie’s friend Ollie steps up and becomes the featured character and detective and lead treasure hunter as he searches for pirate treasure at his Wilderness Scout camp.

There’s danger, boy pranks, camping stuff, and island adventure. Ollie goes to Wilderness Scout camp to get himself out of the media spotlight after his and Moxie’s solving of the (in)famous Gardner art heist. I wanted to adopt Ollie in the first book, and in this one he just gets better and more adorable. He’s a little bit tired of being seen as the sidekick, so when one of the adults at camp asks him to help find a pirate treasure, he can’t really turn down the opportunity—’cause after all, it’s pirate treasure!

The book includes some boys-will-be-boys sneaking and pranking that didn’t offend me, but might be too much for some adult readers. And the whole finding of the long lost pirate treasure rather easily and accidentally is a little bit unbelievable. But hey, go with it and enjoy the ride. How many books have you read lately about kids and pirate’s treasure?

You can go back into the out of print archives:
Mystery in the Pirate Oak by Helen Fuller Orton. I used to read Ms. Orton’s mysteries when I was a kid of a girl. Good children’s mystery books.
Ghost in the Noonday Sun by Sid Fleischman. Oliver FInch, because he was born exactly at midnight, has the ability to see ghosts. And the pirates who kidnap him need his help to to get to a treasure guarded by ghosts, of course. Fleischman wrote lots of funny adventure stories just right for a rollicking good time.
Captain Kidd’s Cat. The True Chronicle of Wm. Kidd, Gent. and Merchant of New York as narrated by His Ship’s Cat, McDermott, Who ought to know by Robert Lawson. Not as well known as Lawson’s other animal-narrated historical chronicles, Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I, but this story of Captain Kidd is written in the same style and just as fun and informative. By the way, I think I may be related to Captain Kidd. At least I have some Kidds in my family tree.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Classic story of the boy, Jim Hawkins, and the pirate, Long John Silver.

But for contemporary piratical adventures, I’m drawing a blank. (I did find my review of Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey, but it’s not exactly set in the twenty-first century, more Dickensian.)

Do you like to read treasure hunt adventures? Do you know of any good pirate treasure books I didn’t mention?

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.

Showoff

UP by sixteen
with six seconds
showing, JB smiles,
then STRUTS
side
steps
stutters
Spins, and
S
I
N
K
S

a sick SLICK SLIDING
SWEEEEEET
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?