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A Month of Sundays by Ruth White

“Is it true what Aunt June says, that everything happens for a reason?”

It’s a key question, and A Month of Sundays, true to the times in which we live, does not presume to give an answer to the question. However the book does presume to raise the right question(s), and for that reason alone, Ms. White deserves kudos.

April Garnet Rose and her mother were deserted by Garnet’s dad before she was born, and now when she finds out that her mother is planning to move to Florida to look for work and a place to live, leaving her behind until things get settled, Garnet feels hurt, abandoned, and furious. Garnet doesn’t even know Aunt June, her father’s sister, who has agreed to take care of her in Virginia while her mother is looking for a job. Then, Garnet finds out that Aunt June believes everything happens for a reason and that April Garnet has come to help her in her search for God.

A Month of Sundays is a short book, 168 pages, and it takes place over a short period of time, a little over a month, but a lot happens in that time. Garnet and Aunt June visit a few different churches and a revival service, searching for God.

Aunt June: “You came here to help me find God. I’ve been searching for him for months now. . . I try a different church every week. Yesterday I was at Big Branch, and last week I went to Little Prater. Now I’ll have you to go with me and help.”

They see people speaking in tongues and handling snakes and preaching and singing. Garnet falls for a preacher boy. But Garnet and her aunt stay on the periphery of the church, observers rather than participants, until Aunt June gets a miracle. Then, Garnet experiences her own miracle—and a tragedy.

I thought it was a good little story, presented in a way that respected the beliefs of various sects without endorsing them. Young readers will be left to make up their own minds about snake-handling and speaking in tongues and faith healing and God. It was a little odd that no one really thought they had “found God” by the end of the book, at least not the Christian God of the Bible. But maybe that’s not who they were looking for in the first place.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

I didn’t know until the very end of this book what the title “the green glass sea” meant, but it turned out to be an appropriate name for a particularly enjoyable book. The Green Glass Sea was the winner of the 2007 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, an award presented to a children’s or young adult book published in English by a U.S. publisher and set in the Americas. I certainly concur with the award committee and with several reviewers who liked the book a lot, including Kelly at Big A Little a, Bookshelves of Doom, and Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 (that last review is where I think I heard about this book and put it on my TBR list several years ago.)

Published in 2006, the book’s setting is World War II, 1943-1945, in Los Alamos, NM. I learned a lot, painlessly, about the Manhattan Project and the background to the development of the atomic bomb just from reading this book. I didn’t know that Los Alamos didn’t even appear on the map during the mid-1940’s, and that the project was such a secret that the scientists who were working on it had to live in a place called the Hill (Los Alamos). In the book kids and adults were told, “Off the Hill, you can’t tell anyone where you live, or who you live with, or what you see or hear.”

The setting and the characters drive the plot in this rather quiet story about an eleven year old girl, Dewe Kerrigan, who comes to I’ve with her scientist father on the Hill. Dewey is delighted to live in this math and science town as she gets to question famous scientists such as Enrico Fermi and Dick Feynman and scour the town dump for cast-offs for her mechanical projects built out of spare parts and ingenuity. However, Dewey’s scientific and mechanical interests make her something of a misfit with the other children in Los Alamos who call her “Screwy Dewy,” and when tragedy strikes, Dewey is not sure where she can turn for help.

The author makes some odd choices about verb tenses. The book starts out in third person, but told from Dewey’s point of view, in present tense, and continues that way for the first 37 pages. Then, it switches to third person, another girl named Suze’s point of view, past tense. The story alternates between Suze’s thoughts and feelings and Dewey’s, staying in past tense. Then later in the book, the author throws in a couple of pages here and there where we’re watching Dewey again, and her story is told in present tense again. I’m not sure what the point was. Maybe someone else can explain?

Such a great story, though. Dewey, and later the other main character, Suze, are very real characters with quirks and changes in attitude and demeanor throughout the book. There is some cursing in the dialogue in the book, which may bother some young readers, but it wasn’t overdone, just enough to be true to the times and the atmosphere. Suze’s mother smokes like a fiend, and the adults all indulge in the occasional beer or other alcoholic beverage of choice, again very true to life. I enjoyed getting to know all of the characters in this book, and I didn’t want it to end. So I’m glad to find out that there’s a sequel called White Sands, Red Menace. Dewey is a young lady I really want to know more.

Oh, and by the way, I loved the ending—very realistic in the characters’ obliviousness to the import of the news they hear on the radio about some place in Japan called Hiroshima.

Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

Last year I read Michaela MacColl’s Nobody’s Secret, a mystery story for young adults set in Amherst, Massachusetts, 1846, and featuring a young Emily Dickinson as the protagonist and sleuth. MacColl’s latest novel, Always Emily, features a different literary Emily, Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

Emily and Charlotte are as different in character, personality, and appearance as it is possible for two sisters to be. On the first page of the novel the family is at a funeral. Charlotte sat “stiffly, her back perfectly straight.” Emily “fidgeted unconscionably.” Charlotte is later portrayed as bossy, prim, near-sighted and anxious. Emily, on the other hand, is wild, independent, outspoken, and undisciplined. The two sisters share only three things: a passionate nature, inquisitive intelligence, and a love for writing.

The two young women, ages 17 and 19 in the book, squabble and argue incessantly. And yet they manage to work together to solve a mystery and bring a miscreant to justice. I was impressed with the author’s ability to bring these two famous writers to life, along with their sometimes chaotic home life. The youngest Bronte sister, Anne, doesn’t play a part in Always Emily; she’s away on a visit. But their father the Reverend Bronte is very much present, as an indulgent father and a socially concerned pastor and counselor. The Bronte brother, Branwell, is already headed toward a weak and dissolute life in this story. And Tabitha, the young ladies’ Yorkshire cook, servant, and substitute mother-figure, rounds out the cast of characters who live in the Bronte household.

The mystery itself was somewhat slight, but it served as a vehicle for the characters to shine. Fans of the Brontes will enjoy the book, and some readers might become fans after reading about the two fiery and independent Bronte sisters. For a biography of the Brontes, try The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef, a Cybils finalist from last year. For more Bronte-related fiction, I recommend The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke. Ms. Clarke’s fantasy about the Brontes’ toy soldiers who come to life and try to return to the Bronte home in Yorkshire won the Carnegie Medal in 1962 (British title: The Twelve and the Genii). Of course, if you’re interested in direct exposure to the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, I also recommend either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, if you haven’t already read both. Like the sisters themselves, the two books are quite different, but each one is insightful and appealing in its own way.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

I had a bout of insomnia while reading this first book in the Windfeather Saga, and while I lay in bed in the dark, trying to chase sleep, I began fixating on anagrams. Specifically, I began thinking about the name of one of the characters in the book, Oskar N. Reteep, a bookseller and quoter of rather obvious aphorisms. Mr. Reteep is a preserver of lost cultural artifacts, a monkish character in the tradition of those who preserved the Scriptures and other remnants of cultural significance during the Dark Ages. Anyway, he had a strange name, and I kept thinking it ought to be some sort of anagram, taken from something else.

I rearranged the letters in my head and teased “Peterson” out of it. I’m not really good at anagrams, especially not in my brain in the dark where I can’t really see the letters on paper. So, I convinced myself somehow that “Oskar N. Reteep” was an anagram for Andy Peterson, which seemed significant. However, that wasn’t right, as any waking mind can see. Actually, “Oskar N. Reteep” transforms into “Rake Peterson” or “Aker Peterson” or something similar.

OK, that makes no sense, so I returned to my book and read about a new character, well, a sort of a ghost character, Brimney Stupe. This name contains the letters of the name “Peterson” too. But the leftover letters are “bimyu”. It can’t be coincidence, can it, that both names have “Peterson” in them?

So I’ve gotten carried away with the anagrams. My excuse is . . . insomnia. Not being able to sleep can do strange things to a person. Mr. Peterson, on the other hand, got carried away with the made-up words and footnoted creatures. Between thwaps and cave blats and toothy cows and hogpigs and bumpy digtoads and rat badgers and flabbits and . . . well, you get the picture. Maybe Andrew Peterson can plead insomnia, during which he made up outlandish creatures to stick in his books.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, and I must say that although it’s good, it’s not as good as The Warden and the Wolf King, the last book in the four volume series (which I read first, about a month ago). Yeah, I read the books in the wrong order. If I sound a bit screwy, bear with me. I do have something to say here: Andrew Peterson grew as a writer over the course of writing this series. That’s my theory. In this first book Peterson is a little punch-drunk on making up words and place names and footnoting all of them madly. The fourth book takes a more serious turn while retaining the charm and freshness of the first, in love with words and imagination, vision.

And along with the half-formed insomniac theory about name anagrams, I’m sticking with it. The series, that is. I recommend The Wingfeather Saga, preferably read in the correct order and with no attention to anagrams.

Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous by J.B. Cheaney

The bus in question is a school bus, and the riders include several fifth, sixth and seventh graders and some “littles.” The story begins with the bus in a ditch in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, and then the rest of the story is a series of flashback chapters told from the point of view of several different bus riders about what happened throughout the school year to get the bus and its passengers to the day of the fateful accident.

Spencer is a genius, just back from a high-powered summer physics camp. Jay is Spencer’s best friend and the kid most likely to play pro-football. Shelley is something of a diva/singer/dancer, already worried about next summer and the performing arts camp in California that she wants to attend. Miranda is the side-kick who latches onto any BFF who will pay her some attention and eat lunch with her in the cafeteria. Bender is the bully, the kid who just might take your lunch money or trip you on a whim if you don’t watch out. Kaitlynn is a blabbermouth, full of ideas. Igor is probably ADHD, always in motion and looking for attention. Alice is the new girl who reads all the time. And Michael—well, Michael is the only African American kid on the bus, and no one knows what he’s thinking because he doesn’t say much to anyone.

I was intrigued and eager to keep reading to see how the author would tie together the stories of all the characters and their interactions with each other. For the most part, all of the loose ends were knotted, which is how I like my stories to be. I believe most kids would agree with me. Ambiguous endings are for literary adult types. This satisfying ending might be a little rushed, but it’s good and not forced.

The only thing that bothered me about the book is that the story is written in present tense. I guess this present tense choice lends some immediacy or nearness to the story, but I sometimes found it distracting. Mostly I tried to ignore it, although my brain insisted on “translating” the story into past tense for me at strategic moments.

Writer’s Digest: The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense.

Overall, I highly recommend Ms. Cheaney’s Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous for middle grade readers who enjoy suspense and family/school stories. The plot and the writing remind me of authors such as Caroline B. Cooney (The Face on the Milk Carton) and Margaret Peterson Haddix (Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey), so I would recommend it as a read alike for those, maybe for a slightly younger crowd, say fifth through seventh graders.

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

“Not everybody can be the rock at the top of the pile. There have to be some rocks at the bottom to support those at the top.”

What if you’re a kid who’s just kind of slow in school? No label, no dyslexia, no dysgraphia, no autism spectrum, no learning disability. School is just hard for you, and you’re almost smart enough to pass your spelling test, almost good at tetherball, almost cool, almost good enough at something to make your parents proud. But not quite.

That’s Albie. I think Lisa Graff has drawn a vivid character sketch of a boy who’s just average, maybe a little below average, in intelligence, but full of heart. Albie isn’t a saint any more than he’s a genius. But his heart is in the right place. He tries to do the right thing—as soon as he figures out what that right thing is. He makes mistakes. He loses a couple of good friends over the course of the story when he does and says things that are not exactly best practice. But Albie is endearing and kind—most of the time.

I wonder what parents and kids and teachers are going to think of this antithesis of the “you are special” message that is so embedded in most middle grade fiction. Albie isn’t really special; he’s kind of an anti-hero, a Napoleon Dynamite, not very good at anything but willing to keep plugging at it anyway. He’s not Leo the Late Bloomer; nor is he the classic middle grade fantasy hero who discovers that he is really a prince in disguise. He doesn’t have a superpower. Albie is just a below average intelligence, untalented, unexceptional kid. Are parents OK with the idea that their kid may be “almost”? Are kids going to want Albie to become something—smarter, stronger, braver, more talented—for them to identify and like him? Are teachers going to be OK with the idea that most kids never will “excel” (otherwise it wouldn’t be excelling, would it?)

Or do we cling to the idea that all the children are above average in Lake Woebegone?

Albie considers what his math teacher told him about the name-calling/bullying he’s enduring:

“On my way back to class, I thought about what Mr. Clifton said. I wasn’t sure he was right, that I got to decide what words hurt me. Because some words just hurt.

It did hurt when I said it in my head, no matter what Mr. Clifton had told me. That word dummy poked me in the brain, in the stomach, in the chest, every time I heard it.

Dummy.”

The book has a realistic plot development and conclusion, too. Not everything turns out perfect for Albie. The bullies and cool kids don’t suddenly turn over a new leaf and accept Albie for who he is. Albie doesn’t completely figure out how to deal with the hurt that the other kids kids cause him. He loses a good friend when he and the friend do something that Albie knows is wrong. We never know if his parents, especially his dad, come to have more realistic and compassionate expectations for him. But things do turn out almost, and for Albie, and mostly for his parents, that’s good enough.

Magic in the Mix by Annie Barrows

Magic in the Mix is a sequel to the author’s first book about time-traveling twins, The Magic Half (which I’ve not read, unfortunately). Miri and Molly are twins, sort of, who have two older brothers (identical twins) and two younger sisters (also identical twins). Miri and Molly aren’t identical, and they’re not really twins, since Molly “moved” to now from a different time period, the Great Depression. But everybody, including their family, thinks they are fraternal twins, and Miri and Molly are glad to act as twin sisters, part of a very unusual family with three sets of twins and living in a magical house—that no one else besides them knows is magical.

Confusing? Yes, but the book is fun. Moll and Miri get to travel in time again, and their brothers, Ray and Robbie, get to experience the magic, too. But this time the place and time where they travel isn’t much fun: the middle of the Civil War is a dirty, dangerous time. Can Miri and Molly rescue Ray and Robbie who have been captured by the Confederates and are due to be hanged as spies at daybreak? Can Molly save her mother from the tragic future that Molly knows is in store for her?

The time travel rules and rationale had some holes, but they weren’t big, gaping holes. Molly and Miri understand that time travel is only permitted when there is something in the past that they need to “fix.” However, it sometimes seems as if there would never have been anything to fix if Miri and Molly had stayed in their own place and time to begin with. And the explanation of time as a layer cake was less than helpful to my time travel-tortured brain.

Still, this series, by the author of the adult best-seller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and of the children’s beginning readers about Ivy and Bean, is a creditable entry in the time travel/historical fiction genre for middle graders. I was a little uncomfortable when Miri and Molly began talking, almost praying, to the magic, asking “It” to come and take them on an adventure or to show them what to do when they were in trouble. But other than that, the book was a good, solid read.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

I think Kathy Appelt is a polarizing author; you either love her style of storytelling or you really find it annoying. I love it.

I thought her tale of hound dog and kittens in the Big Thicket of East Texas, The Underneath, was excellent storytelling, and it should have won the Newbery in 2009 instead of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I didn’t like at all. As for last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp—it should have won something because it’s just as delicious (cane sugar fried pies) and delightful (raccoon scouts who live inside an old rusted De Soto) as The Underneath was.

Again, as in The Underneath, Ms. Appelt’s style takes some getting used to. The chapters, or scenes, are very short, two to four pages each, and the focus and point of view are constantly switching form one set of characters and one plot strand to another. But at the end everything converges in the East Texas swampland that made the setting of The Underneath so memorable.

If the setting is the same, True Blue Scouts has all new characters: Bingo and J’miah, Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts; twelve year old Chapparal Brayburn who has just become the man of the house after the death of his beloved grandfather; Jaeger Stitch, World Champion Gator Wrestler of the Northern Hemisphere; Sonny Boy Beaucoup, current owner of the Sugar Man Swamp, Buzzie and Clydine, leaders of the Farrow Gang of feral hogs; and of course, the Sugar Man himself, “taller than his cousin Sasquatch, taller than Barmanou, way taller than the Yeti. His arms were like the cedar trees that were taking root all around, tough and sinuous. His hands were as wide and big as palmetto ferns. His hair looked just like the Spanish moss that hung on the north side of the cypress trees, and the rest of his body was covered in rough black fur . . . You could say that he was made up of bits and pieces of every living creature in the swamp, every duck, fx lizard, and catfish, every pitcher plant, muskrat, and termite.”

And the plot is complicated by a white “Lord God bird” that may or may not be mythical, a 1949 De Soto lost in the swamp, the delicious-ness of Brayburn fried pies, sugar cane guarded by a whole nest of canebrake rattlers, and the rapacious greed of Jaeger Stitch and Sonny Boy Beaucoup. If you liked The Underneath, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is a must read. If you disliked the animal abuse that was part of the story in The Underneath, then be assured that no animals (except maybe alligators and even the alligators survive) are harmed in the reading of this book. Some readers might be offended by the way that Appelt uses “Lord God” as a sort of exclamation in a couple of places as well as being the name of the bird, but I thought it was a sort of prayer or invocation of the blessing of God himself. Plus, if you were to read this book aloud, as it begs to be shared, you could leave those references out.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp was a National Book Award finalist, but why Kathy Appelt keeps being honored and runner-upped instead of taking the prize, I don’t know. Maybe it’s that polarizing thing I mentioned. At any rate, award or no, you will enjoy True Blue Scouts. No question about it. Unless you’re at the opposite pole.

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.