These are just a few of the books that I’ve recently added to my private subscription library for homeschoolers and others in southeast Houston, Meriadoc Homeschool Library:

Finding Providence: The Story of Roger Williams by Avi. With lovely illustrations by James Watling, this I Can Read Chapter Book tells the story of the hero of religious liberty, Roger Williams, from the point of view of his daughter, Mary. The book has five very short chapters, and the text by Avi is thorough, but simple and straightforward. I have another book about Roger Williams for more advanced readers, Lone Journey: The Life of Roger Williams by Jeanette Eaton.

Ten Brave Men: Makers Of The American Way by Sonia Daugherty. With illustrations by Sonia’s husband, Newbery award winning author, James Daugherty. The stories include the following men: William Bradford, Roger Williams, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln.

Tales From Far and Near and Tales of Long Ago (History Stories of Other Lands) by Arthur Guy Terry. World history in story form, perfect for reading aloud.

Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant. The one is a brand-new picture book biography written by the very talented author of The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus. Six Dots concentrates on the few years in his life when Louis Braille was busily inventing braille writing, in his early teens! At age fifteen, Braille had essentially perfected braille writing, a magnificent invention that “has had a lasting and profound impact on so many people.” Helen Keller compared Louis Braille to Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press.

We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo by Margaret Cousins, historical consultant, Walter Prescott Webb. There were about 35 or 40 books of historical fiction published by Grosset and Dunlap in the We Were There series. Each volume has both an author and a historical consultant. Mr. Webb, who was a renowned Texas historian during the first half of the twentieth century, was president of the Texas State Historical Association for many years. He also launched the project that produced the Handbook of Texas. So, if his name is on the book, it’s historically accurate. And Mrs. Cousins, who wrote a couple of the Landmark series books, Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia and The Story of Thomas Alva Edison, was also an accomplished writer for children and a respected biographer. She also wrote The Boy in the Alamo, another Alamo story. Other We Were There historical fiction in Meriadoc Homeschool Library:
We Were There with Cortes and Montezuma by Benjamin Appelt.
We Were There on the Oregon Trail by William O. Steele.
We Were There on the Santa Fe Trail by Ross McLaury Taylor.
We Were There With the California Rancheros by Stephen Holt.
We Were There at the First Airplane Flight by Felix Sutton.
We Were There With Caesar’s Legions by Robert N. Webb.
A few of the books in this exciting and educational series are available from the public library as e-books. Most of them are not available in any form at Houston or Harris County Public Library.

I also acquired several volumes in the Makers of History series by brothers, Jacob and John Abbott. Jan Bloom says of the thirty-two volumes in the series that they are “interesting, well-written, and full of insights into the people the brothers thought were important.” These books are for older students, junior high and high school, even college age. Of the thirty-two, I have the books profiling the following “makers of history”: Alexander the Great, Queen Elizabeth I, Empress Josephine, William the Conqueror, Henri IV of France, Marie Antionette, Darius the Great Xerxes the Great, Alfred the Great, Cyrus the Great, Pyrrhus, Mary Queen of Scots, Peter the Great, Genghis Khan, Joseph Bonaparte, and Romulus.

So many treasures to read, so little time.

Curse of the Boggin: The Library, Book 1 by D.J.MacHale. In a Library where books involving ghosts and superstitions and curses and monstrous beings are “finished” as they are lived out in the real world, Marcus and his two best friends, Annabella Lu and Theo McLean, work together to solve the supernatural mysteries and lay the ghosts to rest. This is the introductory volume in a projected series of supernatural (spooky) adventures. In the introduction to this introduction, the author tells his readers, “Once you’ve read the first book, you can read the rest in any order. Each will hold a unique tale that doesn’t necessarily rely on any of the others.” That’s a good plan, except that I found this first book to be a little bit un-scary and unbelievable. I couldn’t ever figure out what the rules were for what the Boggin (a kind of ghostly witch-hag, very evil) could and couldn’t do. Maybe if you like horror and ghost stories (I don’t really, unless there’s some other attractive element to add to the ghosts), you’ll like it better than I did.

The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart by Lauren DeStefano is definitely peculiar. However, it’s not clear until the final chapters of the book whether the “blue heart” is about demon possession, mental illness, werewolves, ghosts, feral children, or something else entirely. The book has two main characters, Lionel and Marybeth, who live in a sort of orphanage/foster home with the loving but overworked Mrs. Mannerd. Marybeth is a good girl, healthy, obedient and kind, and Lionel is . . . peculiar. He pretends to be a wolf or a bear or a monkey from time to time, and he eats most of his meals under the table, vegetarian only. Lionel and Marybeth are friends, in spite of their very different personalties, so when the “blue heart” (whatever it really is) takes over Marybeth’s mind and body, Lionel is determined to at least act like a normal human being in order to save her. I think this one is way too disturbing for middle grade readers.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge is creepy, too. Faith SUnderly is a proper Victorian young lady who has always been told, and who believes, that she is inferior in every way to men. Her father, the Reverend Sunderly is not only a cleric but also a world famous paleontologist. Faith, too is interested in science and in anything that will impress her father and get him to pay attention to her, but when she begins to learn more about her father’s research, she also finds herself enmeshed in a web of lies and deceit that won’t let go. This one is about Darwinian evolution, and feminism, and of course, lies. The plot was compelling and kept me reading, but I thought the ending was unsatisfying. Also, Faith is fifteen years old, and the themes will be more interesting to high schoolers and adults than to middle grade readers. However, it is a Halloween-ish read.

I also read these Halloween-ish ghost stories from this year: The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari and School of the Dead by Avi.

Best ghost story of 2016 (so far) goes to one I haven’t read yet: Lockwood & Co., Book Four: The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud. If you want a little wit and banter in your ghostly Halloween read, you should really try the Lockwood and Company series, starting with The Screaming Staircase, progressing to The Whispering Skull, and then The Hollow Boy. If you’ve read and enjoyed those three, you’ll want to read The Creeping Shadow, which is what I am picking for my Halloween read.

Chloe Cho is tired of the Asian jokes, tired of people not knowing whether she’s Chinese or Japanese (she’s Korean), and tired of being compared to famous violinist Abigail Yang. She’s fed up with being the only Asian kid in school and her family being the only Asian family in town. Chloe is also tired of the way her parents avoid the subject of their Korean heritage. Whenever she asks about their childhood or about Korean culture or about how they came to America, all she gets are vague answers and a quick change of subject.

However, Chloe is about to find that things can get worse and that discovering more about her real heritage is more than she can handle: “‘Upset’ was so not the right word. There really wasn’t any one word that captured it all; only a phrase would do, like ‘head in a blender.'”

The writing style in this book is epitomized in that quote. It’s breezy, contemporary, and colloquial. Chloe is a sarcastic over-achiever, a drama queen, and prone to fly off the handle and YELL a lot. Nevertheless, as they say, “she has a good heart.” I wouldn’t understand or even like Chloe very much if I didn’t have a relative of my own who is very much like Chloe. Volcano-like, frequently erupting, then simmering down, the Chloes of this world can be difficult, but they can also be fiercely loyal and tenacious friends.

Unidentified Suburban Object has a lot to say about ethnic diversity and expectations and stereotypes, but it’s not a “heavy” novel. It’s funny, in a sarcastic way, and clever in so far as the plot twist at the center of the novel goes. I think kids will enjoy the story, the interesting shift in perspective, and the very realistic characters. And they might learn something about racism and self-acceptance in a non-threatening and subtle way—which is, of course, the best and most effective way to learn those lessons.

“Books are the treasured wealth of the world, to fit the inheritance of generations” ~Henry David Thoreau


Welcome 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.

Cutting-edge and in touch with contemporary concerns (Creepy Clown Craze), this book needs its own trigger warning. Zozo, the villain of this piece, is a Creepy Clown, and his trashy flunkies, made of random toy parts, are rather sinister, too. Coulrophobics, this book is NOT for you.

Zozo, the clown king, and his toy henchmen, the Creeps, have sworn to steal and imprison “Faves” (favorite toys) in their subterranean lair beneath a defunct carnival. When Billy’s favorite toy, Ollie, is stolen, Billy sets out to rescue Ollie. Will they ever be able to find each other again? Or will the hatred of the heartless Zozo triumph?

Ollie’s Odyssey is precious, very, very precious, Velveteen Rabbit precious. Toy Story precious. In fact, if either of those stories is your favorite, then Ollie’s Odyssey is a sure bet. Otherwise, you may overdose on the sweetness—or get scared silly by the evil clown. There are a few internal inconsistencies, mainly having to do with how or why or by what logic things come to life or don’t. A lot of normally inanimate objects—junk from the junkyard, old toys, carnival paraphernalia, tin cans–come to life in this odyssey, but it was never clear how or why some things could move and communicate while others couldn’t. Or some things could move around by themselves sometimes, but not at other times.

Otherwise, the story is well told, like a movie, complete with memorable characters and movie-ready accents and speech patterns. I could imagine this story with computer animated or claymation characters, and I would guess that the author was imagining it that way as he wrote. From the creator of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, one would expect no less, and the beautiful illustrations add to the movie-effect. (Fantastic Flying Books “was created using computer animation, miniatures and traditional hand-drawn techniques.” And according to Wikipedia, “Joyce created conceptual characters for Disney/Pixar’s feature films Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998).”) I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about the movie version of Ollie’s Odyssey sometime in the future.

In the meantime, since it’s written about a six year old, but the almost 300 pages will be a little too much for most six, or even seven and eight, year olds to handle on their own, I would suggest Ollie’s Odyssey as a read-aloud book. Or just wait for the movie.

Ever since twelve year old Charlie Price’s mom died of cancer, his dad has been gone, too—absentminded, working late, not really there when he is home. Charlie misses his mom. Charlie’s little sister Imogen misses mom, too. Charlie also misses his best friend, Frank, who just disappeared (kidnapped? runaway?) several months ago.

Everything goes from bad to worse when Charlie tries to make Mom’s special spaghetti sauce and fails spectacularly, and then Imogen wishes for the impossible: she wants to live with Mom again and forget about Charlie and their dad.

“Sometimes you can make the impossible happen.” That’s the tagline on the cover of The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price, and Imogen’s wish does come true. Unfortunately, to paraphrase The Rolling Stones, when you get what you think you want, you don’t always get what you need. Charlie, Imogen, Frank, and another friend, Elliott, are all in for a big surprise when they try to reclaim their deceased loved ones.

Bibliotherapy disguised as fantasy. It’s disguised pretty well, but just as Charlie Price didn’t get much from the school psychologist and her “grief group”, I’m not sure how effective this book is going to be in healing or alleviating the grief of children who have lost a loved one or family member. Maybe it would be helpful for some. Different strokes.

Remarkable Journey is a debut novel for Ms. Maschari. The writing is good, characters are okay, plotting works. A little less death and angst (three deaths of intimate family members and one disappearance?) might have been adequate.

The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet.
Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones.

The “wrinkled” or magical mountain village of Lourka where “stories have a way of coming true.”

A twelve year old girl named Linny who breaks the law and makes her own musical instrument, also called a lourka.

Linny’s best friend and almost twin, Sayra, who pays the price for Linny’s rule-breaking.

Add in the apprentice, Elias, a wrinkled half-cat, and the city of Bend at the foot of the mountains where the people are divided between wrinkled and plain, magical and logical, tradition and progress. Linny must find the medicine in Bend that will cure Sayra, but she also runs into numerous other obstacles and diversions that take her into danger, conflict, and finally, a very hard decision. Will she be able to take the medicine back to Lourka to cure Sayra, or is she the prophesied Girl With the Lourka who must stay in Bend and save everyone?

I found this story slow going, and by the time the action picked up in the middle, I still didn’t really care about the characters. And the ending was . . . weird, probably a set-up for a sequel. Which I probably won’t read. However, if the synopsis of the first part of the novel sounds like something you would enjoy, you might get more out of it than I did.

Time Stoppers features another magical village in the mountains where magical creatures like elves and dwarfs and hags and witches go to be safe. They are protected by a garden gnome. Yes, a magical garden gnome statue protects the village of Aurora until it is stolen by trolls. And little Annie Nobody is the child who is destined to be a Time Stopper, find the gnome, bring it back to Aurora, and defeat the evil Each Uisge and the Raiff. With her friend Jamie, the dwarf fighter Eva, and the elf Bloom, Annie does manage to complete some, but not all, of those tasks, leaving plenty of room for Time Stoppers, Book Two.

The action in this one was non-stop, but the whole thing was an outlandish caricature from the beginning. The bad guys, trolls, are horribly, outrageously bad. They eat children, but also before they chow down, they abuse them, refuse to feed them, send them out to sleep with the dogs/wolves, make them smell underwear(?), cackle at them, insult them, etc. The trolls are ridiculously bad, almost laughable, but then they’re not really funny because they are abusive in ugly, bad-parent ways. And the good magical beings of Aurora also behave in outsized, but stereotypical ways. Eva is a loudmouthed, battle-hungry, boastful, warrior maiden. Bloom is quietly strong and spends most of his time annoyed with Eva, which is understandable. Annie and Jamie are bewildered and timid, just happy to find themselves in Aurora where the trolls can’t get them, until the trolls, and other creatures even worse, invade. Then, Annie and Jamie are told that they must be brave.

The Wrinkled Crown felt dream-like (Alice in Wonderland) and over-wrought, with too many directions for Linny to follow and too many tasks to complete. Time Stoppers felt grotesque and buffoonish, slapstick but not very funny. Kirkus says about The Wrinkled Crown: “With hints of a sequel to come, this agreeable adventure introduces an appealing, spunky heroine and sets the stage for more conflict and compromise to come.” And SLJ called Time Stoppers: “”An imaginative blend of fantasy, whimsy, and suspense, with a charming cast of underdog characters.”

I just don’t think either of these is the best middle grade fantasy has to offer.

The author of The Mysterious Benedict Society brings to middle grade readers (at least to those who like LONG books) a standalone story of secrets, lies and hiding places.

Reuben is a loner, a poor boy and an only child who lives with his single mother in a small apartment on the wrong side of the city. He spends his days in solitary exploring, finding hidden nooks and crannies in the crumbling city of New Umbra. He spends his evenings watching TV or designing dream mansions with his mom. Then, one day he finds a hidden object, an object that bestows great power on its owner, but also an object that is sought for by a lot of very, very bad people, including the arch-villain of New Umbra who is known only as The Smoke. Can Reuben unlock the secrets of his newfound magical powers before The Smoke finds him and takes his discovery away?

Reuben comes to realize that he must destroy the Ring of Power, but in order to do he must enter into The Smoke’s lair. And he must give up the only thing that has ever made him feel special and protected and powerful. Whoops, not a ring, but you get the idea; there are definitely echoes of Lord of the Rings here, at least plot-wise, although the setting is completely different. No hobbits, no elves, no dwarfs, no wizards. Instead, the setting is darker and grittier than Middle Earth, in a fear-ridden city ruled by a crime lord whose influence stretches into the most hidden and secret sectors of New Umbra.

Borrowed plot notwithstanding, The Secret Keepers was a fun ride. It will appeal to the kind of kid who likes finding secret hiding places, concealing buried treasures, and designing dream mansions with trap doors and secret passageways. The book is 500 pages long, so if you can’t take 500 pages of secrets and pursuits and getaways and traps and puzzles, this book isn’t for you. But if that sort of thing appeals to you, as it does to me, The Secret Keepers is just as much fun as The Mysterious Benedict Society was.

The first question you must ask yourself before you decide to read this book: can you accept the premise of the cremated ashes of his deceased father speaking aloud from the funeral urn to a twelve year old boy? Second question: do you like golf? If you answer both of these questions in the affirmative, this book is for you. If you can deal with the talking ashes, but you’re not much of a golf fan, you might still want to go along fro the ride. (I did.)

Ben Hogan Putter (get the pun, “putter”, as in golf?) just lost his dad to cancer. Now Ben has a permanent lump in his throat that he believes is an actual golf ball, and his barbecue-loving, golf-loving daddy is speaking to him from beyond the grave, asking Ben to take his ashes to Augusta, Georgia, home of the most famous golf course in the world. That’s where Ben’s daddy, Bo Putter, wants his ashes to rest: Augusta National Golf Club.

On the journey from his home in Hilltop, Alabama to Augusta, Georgia, Ben Putter acquires a traveling companion, a girl named Noni. The two of them beg, borrow, and steal their way across country to get to Augusta in time for the Masters Tournament. Both children have secrets, and both have daddy issues. The suspense in the story is tied up in whether or not they will be able to get to Augusta in time for the Masters, but also in how the two will resolve their respective relationships with their fathers. It’s a tearjerker, very emotional.

Almost too emotional. Ben Putter works out years of grief, anger, estrangement and misunderstanding over the course of a few days. And Noni has a deep-seated trauma of her own to work though. There are several very sentimental and pathos-filled scenes in which Ben Putter talks to his dad, in which the two children take a stand against the segregationists of the early 1970’s, in which Noni forgives and reconciles with her father, in which Ben says good-bye to the father who never really understood him. Much Sturm-und-Drang. Father issues. Tears and trials.

But it’s not a bad little Mississippi, golfing, and dealing with death story.

Author Sharon Creech and her husband now live in Maine, “lured there by our grandchildren.” She writes, “Moo was inspired by our mutual love of Maine and by our granddaughter’s involvement in a local 4H program. We have all been enchanted by the charms of cows.”

So Moo is a book centered on the charms of both Maine and cows. Although it took me a while to be charmed, by the end of the book, I was. I don’t think this one is great literature or great poetry, but it is a nice little nugget of endearment. Twelve year old Reena and her family move from the city, probably New York City, to rural Maine. Reena and her seven year old brother Luke go to “help out” their elderly neighbor Mrs. Falala (Fa-LA-la) at her house which hosts a pig named Paulie, a cat named China, a snake called , and most notably, cow, Zora. It’s a typical set up: a crochety, unapproachable, eccentric old person becomes the best friend and mentor to a child or children; in this case Reena and Luke are the children. It’s rather predictable, but sweet, too. The cow, Zora, is “ornery and stubborn, wouldn’t listen to anybody, and was selfish beyond selfish, and filthy, caked with mud and dust.” (punctuation added)

The book is written in part poetry, part prose, part prose poem. It could have used some more punctuation and fewer visual effects and typological devices and line breaks. The story was funny, the language and imagery were effective and vivid, but I was distracted by the entrances and exits into poetry and non-poetry and sort of poetic. I have a daughter who loves verse novels, partly, I think, because of all the space on the pages and because of the rich language. She is not much of a reader, but she has a rich vocabulary and enjoys words and language. However, I’m not sure if she would like this novel or not. It’s neither fish nor fowl, neither all prose nor all poetry. Maybe a good transition?

Read it if you want to gain a deeper appreciation for the charms of cows.