The Time of the Fireflies by Kimberley Griffiths Little

Larissa Renaud lives in her family’s antique shop in southern Louisiana, and she, like many middle grade protagonists, feels misunderstood by her parents and bereft of friends in her new town. So Larissa becomes fascinated with an old, disconnected telephone in the antique shop that somehow rings and connects her with someone who has a message for her. Larissa also develops a compulsion to find out more about the sinister but beautiful doll that her mother displays in the antique shop but refuses to sell because it’s a family heirloom.

If southern Louisiana is really as insular, superstitious, creepy, and dangerous as this book makes it out to be, I don’t ever want to live there. And if the only way to get rid of a family curse is to employ the services of a kindly neighborhood traiteur, I don’t want to go there either.

In Louisiana, the term traiteur (sometimes spelled treateur) describes a man or woman (a traiteuse) who practises what is sometimes called faith healing. A traiteur is Native Creole healer or a traditional healer of the French-speaking Houma Tribe, whose primary method of treatment involves using the laying on of hands. An important part of Creole folk religion, the traiteur combines Catholic prayer and medicinal remedies. They are called to treat a variety of ailments, including: earaches, toothaches, warts, tumors, angina, and bleeding. In the past, they substituted for trained physicians in remote rural areas of Acadiana. Most traiteurs consider their healing abilities a gift from God, and therefore refuse to accept payment in exchange for their services.

Traiteurism is a very old tradition that is dying out, and very few traiteurs now exist. Traditionally, the rituals of the traiteur are passed down to the opposite gender. So a male must pass it down to a female, and vice versa. The traiteur must be asked to perform the treatments and will rarely offer them outright unless the need is great, and they can not ask for a payment of any kind, although it is acceptable to accept gifts for treating a person. However gifts for a true traiteur are never required. Wikipedia, Traiteur

This book reminded me of the worst, as in spookiest and most disturbing, episode of Twilight Zone that I remember. It was called Living Doll, and it starred Telly Savalasas as a step-father who was being threatened by a talking doll. I’m afraid The Time of the Fireflies might give kids nightmares and an unhealthy fear of dolls just as that television program did for me. But if you’re ready to handle voodoo, a doll with a curse, creepy grandma in a wheelchair, alligators, fire and near-drowning, then go for it. The writing was OK, but some of the dialog was forced and manipulated in order to convey information to the reader. The cover should feature that creepy doll in the story instead of being all fireflies and light.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is 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.

Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson

A nameless girl dressed only in spiderwebs enters the Pennyroyal Academy, a place where girls are trained to become princesses who do battle with witches and boys are trained to become knights who fight dragons.

If that introduction intrigues you, Pennyroyal Academy is the book for you. If you got stuck, as I did, on imagining the girl dressed only in spiderwebs, then maybe you’ll get stuck again on some of the other rather odd aspects of this book. I just kept wondering how the the whole spiderwebs-as-clothing thing worked. Wouldn’t they be at least translucent, no matter how many spiderwebs you used. And wouldn’t the stickiness of the webs be nasty and uncomfortable? And how would you take them off? Yuck! There were other details that sidetracked me, too, but as these others are spoiler-ish, I’ll save them to discuss with those who have already read the book.

The princesses-in-training learn that to fight witches they must become courageous, compassionate, kind and disciplined. These are the four cardinal virtues of Pennyroyal Academy. Their commander tells them

“A Princess of the Shield is courageous. She is compassionate. She is kind and she is disciplined. Without these four core values, a girl may have all the crowns and castles she wants, but she will no more be a princess than she will a dragon.
You must prepare for battle as any soldier would, though yours are not the weapons of a soldier. Your weapons are pure hearts and steel spines. Your weapons are already inside you. And the only way to wield them is to know yourself. Which is precisely what we will teach you here.”

I liked that little speech and the idea that the girls must be trained for battle with the witches of the kingdom. However, as a Christian, I would quibble with the ultimate source for courage, compassion, kindness, and discipline (self-control). Disney teaches us, “Know yourself, be yourself, and be true to your heart.” The Bible says that the qualities of a Warrior Princess are gifts of the Spirit of God. To battle real witches and dragons, we Christians must be trained in dependence on that same Holy Spirit. In fact, Pennyroyal Academy reminded me of this song:

Deep inside we are children, not strong, self-sufficient warriors. We only war in His might and in His strength.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is 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.

Nonfiction November: Week 2 Lists!

Lu/Leslie at Regular Rumination asks us to Be/Become/Ask the Expert:

Share a list of titles that you have read on a particular topic, create a wish list of titles that you’d like to read about a particular topic, or ask your fellow Nonfiction November participants for suggestions on a particular topic.

Well, I have two three ongoing projects, and I’d love to have suggestions for either.

My U.S. Presidents Project is stalled at the moment, but I’d like to take it back up in January. I have a copy of David McCullough’s Truman waiting for me to get around to it. And here I have a list of presidential biographies I’d like to read. What books should I add to my list? Leave me a comment about any biographies of U.S. presidents that you’ve read and enjoyed, and please leave a link to your review, if you wrote one.

My Africa reading project is also ongoing. I was trying to focus on one are of Africa each year, but that idea fell by the wayside when I would find a book set in another part of Africa that I wanted to read. So any nonfiction about Africa or African countries?

I almost forgot about this list of 50 Nonfiction Books for 50 States. Do you have any suggestions to add to this list?

I am going to enjoy exploring other bloggers’ nonfiction reading lists and projects. I may have to restrain myself from taking on another reading project as a result of reading others’ lists.

Thursdays With the Crown by Jessica Day George

To prepare myself for this third book in a series, I first reviewed my review from a couple of years ago of Tuesdays at the Castle. Then, I read Wednesdays in the Tower, for which I received an ARC that I never got around to reading. Then, I was ready for Thursdays With the Crown.

I wouldn’t recommend reading these books out of order or reading just one, unless it’s the first one. Wednesdays in the Tower ends on a cliffhanger, and I’m glad I didn’t read it back when I would have had to wait for the third book. In Wednesdays, Princess Celie imprints or tames or bonds with a baby griffin. It’s sort of like Dragonriders of Pern, except for kids and with griffins. Yes, Celie eventually rides the flying griffin. The entire book is about Celie and the griffin that she names Rufus. At the end of that book, Celie and some of her friends and family are transported to the land where the Castle originated, and from that point on things take a more serious turn as the friends try to find out why the Castle is behaving so oddly and what they can do to fix things there and back in the land of Sleyne.

My favorite part of these two books in the series is not the plot, not the theme of “war is evil and griffins are great”, not even the characters exactly, although I like them all. My favorite part is when Prince Lulath of Grath talks. Lulath is from another country, and he speaks Sleynth only as a second language, rather brokenly. I absolutely love the way he talks. I don’t know if a few examples will give you the idea, and I’m not really supposed to quote from the ARC. Nevertheless, Lulath’s speech is so broken and funny that it can’t be a problem to quote just a little:

“Oh so much fear,” Lulath said. “But then I would look to myself in the mirror and say, Lulath, you silly big man! Here is being two beautiful princesses and a noble prince in so much the danger! Have they food? Have they warmth? You must be putting on your shoes like a very man, and going forth! And so I am!” He nodded firmly. “It is why also I am studying the strategying when I am young. I am having so much fear in the night, I think, I will learn all that is brave and very, and will also go forth with strongness!”

“I thank you, Friend Pogue,” Lulath said cheerfully. “It is because I am looking such a silly man. I am liking the clothes too much, it is a thing that I know. You are not thinking that I am having much brain.”

The stories are fun and a little bit dramatic towards the end, but it was Lulath that kept me reading. I wish I could write him into a play for my children’s drama group to perform. Or I could impersonate him for (next) Halloween, but no one would know who I was imitating. Anyway, Lulath is very being my favorite.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is 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.

Fat & Bones and Other Stories by Larissa Theule

A one-legged, limping pig and a dancing pig and a pot-bellied fairy and singing maggots and a murderous tulip and a victorious daisy and a clumsy poet spider and a flat-as-a-pancake farmer’s wife (hung out to dry on the clothesline) and a whispering meat cleaver and a farmer named Bald and his son named Bones and Alfred the sneezing dog and a philosopher cat . . . Oh. my. goodness.

By the time I had wrapped my head around all those rather horrible and bizarre characters, this short 100-page book was over, and I was trying to go back and re-read to figure out exactly what happened. Sometimes I can compare the children’s fantasy books I read to others: this one might be like Harry Potter, and that one is similar to Tolkien or the dystopian novels or some fairy tale. Fat & Bones has the distinction of being unique in my reading experience.

It’s as if the author had a series of nightmares that she wrote into a series of interlocking tales, for children. To give them nightmares? It’s not exactly scary. No one would believe in and be afraid of the world that Ms. Theule has given us. It’s world in which a dog’s sneeze can move mountains. A world in which a maimed pig gives up her last foot to the whispering meat cleaver. And spiders give up their blood to make a Bluebell Blindness Inducer Potion. Frightening, no, but definitely creepy and surreal. The illustrations by Adam S. Doyle add to the hallucinatory, ink-blot atmosphere.

If any of that weirdness intrigues you, you should take a look at Fat & Bones. I can’t really say that I recommend it, but I am still thinking about it three days after I read the book. It’s a story that will stick in your brain, for better or for worse.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is 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.

The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman

The blurb says that this story is “set in 1949 and tak[es] inspiration from E.B. White’s Stuart Little.” The mouse hero Stuart Little is certainly mentioned repeatedly and is an important role model for the mice in the story. However, even though she is not mentioned, the human fictional heroine Little Orphan Annie certainly must have been lurking in the background as an influence for the author of this orphan tale. Kirkus Reviews says the story is surely a tribute to Paul Gallico’s The Abandoned, a story I’m not familiar with although I know the author (The Poseidon Adventure, Mrs. ‘arris Goes to Paris). The plot also echoed Aesop’s fable of The Lion and the Mouse. So it’s a story of many sources and influences.

Cherry Street Children’s Home is the domicile of about thirty some odd orphans, including ten year old Caro McKay. Caro is not very pretty, and she has a severely scarred right hand from the house fire that took her mother’s life. Caro knows that her mother’s death was her fault, and she tries every day to make up for her cowardice in not saving her mother from the fire by being “too good, too studious, too obedient, too nice.” The orphanage director, Mrs. George, depends on Caro to keep the peace and to be a good influence on the other orphans.

Meanwhile, in “mouse territory” behind the baseboards and under the floors, a whole colony of mice forage for food, care for their families, watch for predators, and steal art. Art has become very important to this particular mouse colony, and the postage stamps that the Official Art Thief takes from the orphanage director’s desk adorn the walls of mouse territory and bring to the mice a sense of wonder.

When Mary Mouse, art thief, and Caro McKay, model orphan, meet, they immediately form a bond that transcends their inability to communicate completely. And when Caro helps Mary escape from the dreaded predator Gallico the cat, then Mary knows that she must return the favor by helping Caro, even though Caro doesn’t know the danger she faces.

I thought this story was a delight. The point of view alternates between that of Caro and her mouse friends, and both vantage points feel spot on and give the reader a different perspective on events in the story. The plot moves along at a good clip, but each development fits into a pleasing whole as Caro discovers her true self in terms of “a new story, a true story.” The villains get their just deserts, and the book ends with lasting friendships and more stories. What more could one ask for?

The Orphan and the Mouse would be an excellent read aloud book. Fans of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little, Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse, or Kate diCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux should enjoy this book as another tale in that same classic tradition.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is 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.

Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe

The setting for this speculative fiction is an imagined world, but the feeling is Eastern European or former Soviet Union. The characters in the book have mostly Jewish-sounding names—Sarah, Marah, Caleb, Shaul, Miriam, Leah—with a few of the names (for a different ethnic group) sounding vaguely Persian or Arabic—Azariah, Melchior, Nasim. There’s a marketplace with a book stall and other small merchant stalls and stands, and the children go to a mysterious forest to find peddlers of rare herbs and spices. The main character plays the violin. Shades of Fiddler on the Roof.

However, this world isn’t exactly your babushka grandmother’s home back in Mother Russia. Marah Levi is halani, a member of the non-magical, servant class in the city-state of Ashara. She accidentally becomes friends with a younger kasiri girl, Sarah, but feels uncomfortable as Sarah and her brother Azariah invite Marah to their home and ask for help with projects. Kasiri, the ruling magician class of Ashari society, just don’t associate with “sparkers”, the pejorative term for the halani.

Again, the whole ambience reminded me of early twentieth century Poland or Ukraine with the halani as an unfairly treated lower class (Jews), and the kasiri as the ruling class with inherited power. Then, a plague called “dark eyes disease” comes to attack the city, and kasiri and halani both are desperate for a cure or at least some treatment that will be effective against the deadly disease.

SPOILER: I found it difficult to believe that Marah and Azariah just happened to have a very rare book with the cure for “dark eyes” in their possession—and they also, coincidentally, had the ability to read the almost forgotten language that the book was written in. Oh, and by accident, they happened to meet each other at just the right time for all this hidden knowledge to come to light, just in time to cure at least some of the victims of the “dark eyes”.

But if you can accept a lot of rather fortuitous events, then the story is rather intriguing. I enjoyed seeing how it would all come together, and I was surprised by some of the dramatic events at the close of the story. I got the sense that things were not really settled and happily-ever-after in Ashara, although the story ended with the main characters sorted well enough. I wouldn’t mind reading a sequel to see what happens to Marah and Caleb and the other inhabitants of Ashara.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is 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.

Saturday Review of Books: November 8, 2014

“I’d leave all the hurry,
the noise and the fray
For a house full of books
and a garden of flowers.”
~Andrew Lang

SatReviewbuttonWelcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read. That’s how my own TBR list has become completely unmanageable and the reason I can’t join any reading challenges. I have my own personal challenge that never ends.

Nonfiction November and Me

OK, so Nonfiction November is a celebration of nonfiction during the month of November. Unfortunately, I’m busy during November reading pretty much the opposite of adult nonfiction: speculative fiction for middle grade readers. Well, not unfortunately, because I’m excited to be a judge for the Cybils, but unfortunately as far as nonfiction goes. I will be celebrating nonfiction with a post or two, and I really enjoyed adding more nonfiction to my totally unmanageable TBR list by visiting everyone else who is participating. However, I won’t be actually reading much nonfiction until January.

Anyway, the writing prompt for this week is:

Your Year in Nonfiction: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

According to my list at Goodreads, I have read 169 books in 2014. Of those the following 16 have been nonfiction:

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi.
Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta.
Everybody Paints! The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family by Susan Goldman Rubin.
The Story of D-Day by Bruce Bliven, Jr.
Against All Odds by Jim Stier.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson.
D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, 1944 by Rick Atkinson.
Horrors of History: Ocean of Fire: The Burning of Columbia, 1865 by T. Neill Anderson.
Blue Marble by Don Nardo.
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin.
The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller.
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel.
The Last Lion 2: Winston Spencer Churchill Alone, 1932-40 by William R. Manchester.
House Dreams by Hugh Howard.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre.

By that listing, I’m reading about 10% nonfiction. My favorite book by far of those sixteen was the biographical book about Churchill, The Last Lion 2: Winston Spencer Churchill Alone, 1932-40 by William R. Manchester. There are a few historical people who fascinate me: Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, the apostle Paul, Corrie Ten Boom, Adoniram Judson, Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Not all of these people are my heroes, but they are people who lived fascinating and colorful lives. I would love to read more about any of them.

My TBR list at Goodreads has over 200 nonfiction titles on it. (I told you it was unmanageable.) I’m seriously considering reading only nonfiction in 2015, or only nonfiction during the first six months of 2015. Why should I or why should I not try this experiment? I wonder what it would mean for my reading life to read only nonfiction. What is the best nonfiction book you can recommend?

Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

Sonya Hartnett’s Children of the King feeds into some of my fondest fascinations:

British history, especially kings and queens and all that jazz.

World War II stories about child evacuees.

Crumbling castles and the ghosts that inhabit them.

Old English houses full of old stuff.

Mysteries of history.

Homeschooling and storytelling.

Themes of courage and small victories and war and peace.

Cecily and Jeremy and their mother have come to the north of England to live with their Uncle Peregrine while London is under siege from Hitler’s bombers. Since Uncle Peregrine live in a big manor house, they decide that it would be only fair for them to take in an extra child evacuee from London. So May comes to live with them. But when Cecily and May find two mysterious boys hiding in the nearby ruins of Snow Castle, they beg Uncle Peregrine to tell them the history of the castle. And he does, even though “its story is as hard as winter” and “cruel” and “scary” and “long”. “Unfit for childish ears.”

Aye, there’s the rub. Although this novel had me enthralled as an adult with my particular fascinations and interests, and although I think it might very well have engaged my interest as a middle school or high school student, it may also very well be “unfit for childish ears.” The horror and unfairness and violence of war are a major topic for discussion, as it surely was in those times when war was so very near and terrible. The adults in the story are not perfect and neither are the children. All of them make annoying, and sometimes stupid or even dangerous, choices. And the history story part of the novel is meant as a mirror or an analogy for the events that are taking place in England in 1940 as war calls for sacrifices that are unfair and horrific and as even children are caught up in a quest for power and dominion that isn’t their fault or their responsibility.

I really loved this book, but you might want to take Charlotte’s review as well as my reservations under consideration before you read it or recommend it to your favorite young reader. I wish I could discuss the history mystery that forms a part of this book with you, but that would be a spoiler, sort of. Suffice it to say that particular slice of history is one of my fascinations, too.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is 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.