Spunky Girl Spies and Tries (To Keep Hoping)


Harriet M. Welch.
Ramona Quimby.
Jo March.
Trixie Belden.
Flavia de Luce.
Nancy Drew.
Hazel Kaplansky.
Star Mackie.

One could go on listing spunky girl heroines, wannabe spies and detectives, and just generally nonconformist and stubborn females in children’s fiction for a long time. (In fact, Jen Robinson made just such a list of 200 “cool girls from children’s literature” a few years ago.)

I read Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera and The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore back to back, and the female protagonists, Star and Hazel, will forever be associated and somewhat confused with one another in my mind. Star and Hazel definitely fit into the cool, spunky female character category. If you read one of these two books and like it, you’ll probably like the other.

Hazel Kaplansky of Spy Catchers is a girl sleuth who models her detective activities on the famous Nancy Drew. Set in 1953, Spy Catchers of Maple Hill has as its historical background and key conflict the Cold War and the Red Scare of the 1950′s. Hazel is determined to find and expose the “Commie” spies that she is sure are conspiring to infiltrate and destroy Maple Hill, Vermont—if not the entire United States.

Hazel is relentless and somewhat arrogant in her search for truth, justice, and the American way. “What’s the point of modesty?” she says at one point to her friend and fellow detective, Samuel. “I’ll be modest when other folks start to realize how remarkable I am.”

By the end of the book Hazel has come to a few realizations herself—and received a bit of a comedown when she finds out that her unfounded suspicions have hurt good people. However, the last few pages of the story show Hazel, as determined and undaunted as ever, spinning new theories and visualizing herself as “Hazel Kaplansky, star student, holder of knowledge, solver of mysteries, and future double agent.”

Star Mackie in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel is just as stubborn in her sense of right and wrong and her quest to make sense of her world as Hazel. Star is a little younger than Hazel, and in spite of Star’s somewhat dysfunctional family life, she’s a bit more innocent than Hazel. Star’s father disappeared when she was a baby. Her mother says her dad is a no-good bum and won’t let Star even communicate with him. Her sister Winter, whom Star idolizes, has been kicked out of school for writing horror stories with lots of “characters in them [that] have the misfortune of dying horrible deaths, like having all of the blood explode out of their bodies” and a “family of inbred mutant cannibals” who happen to have the same names as her classmates.

The whole family, Star, her mom, and Winter, have moved from Oregon to California in search of a fresh start, and their home is “the pink-tinted trailer with the flamingo hot glued to the roof” in Treasure Trailers trailer park. Star (like Hazel) is unpopular with her new classmates because of her trailer park origins and general lack of conformity, and so she tries starting a club to make new friends. But Star, again like Hazel, is rather bossy and stubborn, and friendships are hard to initiate.

I liked the fact that both of these books feature imperfect young protagonists, and not everything is resolved in the end of either book. Hazel doesn’t become subdued and older but wiser. Star doesn’t really connect with her father, and her new friends are, well, a little flaky and unreliable. Nevertheless, as Star would say in imitation of Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a Ferris Wheel. . . Hope becomes A Thing/ That, When you’re getting Off,/ You take With you to Bring.”

There’s still hope for Hazel Kaplansky and Star Mackie to grow into strong young women with wisdom tempered by experience. And they’re the kind of girls who will experience a lot because they aren’t going to sit around and wait for life to come to them. If you’re a fan of Harriet the Spy or Flavia de Luce, you might very well enjoy either or both of these middle grade novels.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge

Each tick of the clock brings chaos closer.

Christopher Edge . . . lives in Gloucester (England) where he spends most of his time in the local library dreaming up stories.” ~from the author blurb in the back of the book

Mr. Edge must have some imagination–or else he’s experienced the bite of a dreamweaver spider and thereby descended into madness. I was just about tested beyond the limits of my ability to suspend disbelief as I read Five Minutes to Midnight, the story of thirteen year old orphan heiress and author, Penelope Tredwell and her adventures in and around London, especially Bedlam, in the last month of the last year of the nineteenth century.

Penelope is an intrepid young heroine, and she needs all the courage and intelligence she can muster since the villain of the story is a murderous arachnologist, Lady Cambridge, with a cluster of dreamweaver spiders forming the arsenal she plans to use to bring her the power to rule the world. (Insert evil cackle.)

Wilbur’s friend Charlotte notwithstanding, spiders are often symbols of evil in literature: I think Tolkien in particular had an aversion to arachnids. The mythological Arachne herself was turned into a spider by the goddess Athena as a punishment for her arrogance. (Check out this Literary Spiders quiz on Goodreads.)The power and influence of the dreamweaver spiders in Twelve Minutes to Midnight is borderline unbelievable. But if you are intrigued by the thought of a gothic, penny dreadful*-type middle grade story with a young female heroine, Twelve Minutes to Midnight might just fit the bill.

There are two more books in the series of the adventures of Penelope Tredwell, Shadows of the Silver Screen and The Black Crow Conspiracy. Shadows of the Silver Screen is due to be published in the U.S. by Albert Whitman in September, 2014. The Black Crow Conspiracy is, for some strange reason, available now in a Kindle ebook edition, but has no scheduled U.S. publication date at Amazon for the “real” book edition.

*Penny dreadful: A penny dreadful was a type of British fiction publication in the 19th century that usually featured lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing one (old) penny. The term, however, soon came to encompass a variety of publications that featured cheap sensational fiction, such as story papers and booklet “libraries”. The penny dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and were aimed at young working class males.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1

This verse kept running through my mind as I read The Night Gardener, an Edgar Allan Poe-like story about two Irish orphan children who become entangled in an English family, the Windsors, and the curse that binds them to a crumbling house built around a spooky, twisted snare of a tree that captures the Windsors and their new Irish servants and threatens to carry them to their doom.

Mr. Auxier begins his story with two quotations, one from Milton’s Paradise Lost and the other from Aesop:

“Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe.” ~John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1.

“We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified.” ~Aesop.

And there you have a summary of what the book is about. Molly and her little brother Kip find that having their wishes come true is a trap rather than a gift, and they and the members of the Windsor family are embroiled in a ever escalating game to try to make their wishes, for food and money and beauty and heroism and family and even healing, bring them true and lasting joy. However, they find that “the sin that so easily entangles”, another description for idolatry and the attempt to find happiness in things of this earth, is not a fair substitute for a real home or real family. In fact, Satan, depicted here as a night gardener in a top hat, cheats. When he “gives gifts” there are always evil strings attached.

If I’ve given you the impression that this novel is a sermon in disguise, it’s not. In fact, I’m not sure how much of the Christian truth embedded in the story is meant to be and how much is just the mark of a good true story. For instance, the story never identifies the Night Gardener as Satan; that’s my interpretation. Nevertheless, Molly and Kip will steal your heart and just as Poe’s best horror stories tend to reveal a bit of truth about the deceitfulness of the human heart and the sinfulness of the human condition, this children’s horror story is full of truth, too. Be careful what you wish for—and from whom you take a gift.

Saturday Review of Books: June 28, 2014


“Readers are greedy. And every reader knows that every time you read a good book, the right book, you end up with more titles of books you want to read.” ~The Headmistress, The Common Room

SatReviewbutton

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. 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.

Mouseheart by Lisa Fiedler

Hopper is an ordinary pet-shop mouse—or is he? Is he really The Chosen One? The mouse who will bring glory to Atlantia, the rat kingdom below the streets of New York City?

This rat/mouse world is almost as violent and rich in folklore as the rabbit world of Watership Down. The book is certainly not for cat lovers; the cats in this fantasy world are downright evil. Hopper is a bit slow on the uptake and naive, and his sister, Pinkie, is so full of herself that one is tempted to shake her out of her pride and foolhardiness.

The characters and the plot twists carry this 313 page introduction to the utopian/dystopian world of Atlantia. Hopper is endearing if dim. His friend Zucker the Rat Prince is hilariously brave and faithful. The Emperor Titus, Zucker’s father, is enigmatic in a Star Wars Darth Vader way. It took a while for this reader to figure out whether Titus was a good guy, misunderstood, or a really bad guy. (My only excuse is that it takes Hopper a lot longer to figure things out.) Zucker’s friend, Firren, is undeveloped as yet, but promising. And Pinkie is annoying.

I should also mention the illustrations by Vivienne To. They’re brilliant. I’m no art critic, but I can say that I paid attention to the illustrations far more than I usually do, and they added a great deal to my understanding and enjoyment of the story.

Mouseheart is obviously the beginning of a series. The ending reveals that: “A war had begun. Somehow Zucker and his new friends were going to have to win it. Deep in his heart, he knew that they would.” If you want to learn more about the world or about the follow-up books in the series, you can try the Mouseheart website. The second book, Hopper’s Destiny, is promised for March 2015, and the third book is as yet unnamed and without a projected publication date.

The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson is one talented guy. I’ve been a big fan of his songs for quite a while now, but I haven’t read any of his Wingfeather Saga books because, well, I just didn’t want to commit myself to a big, huge, sprawling, saga series of books. And the idea that the man could sing and play and write songs and lyrics and write fantasy books for children was a little too much to be believed. So, sometimes God gives a wealth of talent to one person.

I should have taken the plunge and made the commitment with the first book in the series, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. Then I could have read the second and third books, North! Or Be Eaten and The Monster in the Hollows, and all of the characters that I came to love in The Warden and the Wolf King–Janner and Kalmar and Leeli and Arthram and Podo and Sara and Maraly— would have been old friends already. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the fourth and final book in the saga even more if I were equipped with the background and history behind it, but I really enjoyed The Warden and the Wolf King anyway.

Even the one book is a saga, and it is a commitment, 519 pages worth of commitment. Obviously, I recommend starting at the beginning of the sage with Book 1, which makes it even more of a commitment. However, dare I say that it’s worth it? Definitely influenced by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, this series is nevertheless no Tolkien imitation and no Lewis copycat. There are lots of battles and adventures and hair’s breadth escapes for those who like that sort of things. But the themes and characters are what drew me in. I loved reading the description of Janner’s battle with the jealousy and mixed motives and sin that tears his heart apart as he tries desperately to be the strong, courageous and protective older brother that he is called to be. I liked reading about the “cloven”, creatures part human and part animal or insect who struggle to deal with their dual natures and their disturbed memories of the past. Oood the troll provided some comic relief and a few moments of heroism and rescue. And the ending to the entire book, and the entire series, was pure genius. Enough said.

The Silence of God is one of my favorite Andrew Peterson songs, and I would say that it pairs well with the themes of The Warden and the Wolf King. Several times in the book the “good guys” just have to grit their teeth and keep going, without answers, without a clear word from the Maker, just persevering and hoping and working toward the best goal they know.

I find that the Christian life is a lot like that song and a lot like Janner’s and Kalmar’s journey in this book. “What about the times when even followers get lost? We all get lost sometimes.” “The aching may remain but the breaking does not.”

Another Day as Emily by Eileen Spinelli

I don’t care much for verse novels. I really liked this story, but why was it written as a verse novel? (Disclaimer: I have the same complaint about most verse novels.) Maybe it was billed as poetry because of the Emily Dickinson tie-in? If so, the poetic nature of the poems was lost on me. It felt like prose with funny line breaks.

On the other hand, did I say I really liked the story? Suzy is a bit jealous of her little brother who is getting all of the attention because of his heroic act of calling 911 when their elderly neighbor has a medical emergency, and so Suzy decides to become Emily Dickinson, reclusiveness and long white dresses and all. I went through some weird phases myself when I was eleven or twelve (and even older), and I can well imagine an eleven year old becoming an Emily Dickinson wannabe.

I liked the way Suzy/Emily’s parents decided to be patient and wait for the phase to end, but how they made Suzy go to church with the family on Sunday, Emily Dickinson or not. I liked how Suzy’s best friend wasn’t perfect, but was a good friend. I liked Suzy. As I said, I went through some phases myself. Did I ever mention how in sixth grade I had a large rag doll that went everywhere with me for a few weeks, even to the sixth grade skating party? Then, in junior high, my best friends decided to go to Narnia. Really. They set a date and wrote good-bye notes. We were in college when we decided to form a Baptist convent. Yeah, an Emily Dickinson phase would have fit right into my childhood and adolescence without a ripple.

Ms. Spinelli has a record of winning me over with her characters and story (The Dancing Pancake), but I would prefer straight prose with a bit of poetic license thrown into the mix. Oh, well, I’m not her editor, and Ms. Spinelli is a a highly successful children’s author while I’m just an adult with an aversion to so-called verse novels.

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

Piper has never seen the mark of the dragonfly until she finds the girl amid the wreckage of a caravan in the meteor fields.
The girl doesn’t remember a thing about her life, but the intricate tattoo on her arm is proof that she’s from the Dragonfly Territories and that she’s protected by the king. Which means a reward for Piper if she can get the girl home.
The one sure way to the Dragonfly Territories is the 401, a great old beauty of a train. But a ticket costs more coin than Piper could make in a year. And stowing away is a difficult prospect–everyone knows that getting past the peculiar green-eyed boy who stands guard is nearly impossible.
Life for Piper just turned dangerous. A little bit magical. And very exciting, if she can manage to survive the journey. ~from Jaleigh Johnson’s website

Techno-steampunk fantasy science fiction. With the exception of a couple of “blips” in the plot (Where did Anna get the money to run away on the express train? How did King Aren know about the traitors?), The Mark of the Dragonfly was an absorbing, worthy entry in the middle grade steampunk genre.

Most of the story takes place on a train, the 401, which makes the story automatically attractive to those of us who have an interest in trains. The fact that this novel doesn’t read as if it is the first in a trilogy makes it inviting for those of us who are tired of trilogies. And the characters and the world of the novel are appealing. Piper and the girl she finds, Anna, are a fine pair of friends, and the green-eyed guard, Gee, makes a good foil to Piper’s feisty, combative nature.

I would recommend this one to anyone who’s interested in trains, dystopia, futuristic sci-fi, or spunky female protagonists. Unfortunately, the characters in the novel pray to “the goddess”—who is never described or fleshed out, only mentioned, so if that mention offends, you want to skip or skim over those brief references.

Ms. Johnson does say on her FAQ page: “In 2014 I’ll be working on the companion novel to The Mark of the Dragonfly. It’s set in the world of Solace but follows different characters.” So no sequel or trilogy, but a companion. Not too much commitment required.

The Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson

“Stay right with your brothers. Stay right with the Lord. Hit like thunder, and run like the devil’s nightmare.”

It sounds like a quote from Friday Night Lights, doesn’t it?

N.D. Wilson is a talented and prolific author. In addition to publishing Empire of Bones, the last in the Ashtown Burials series, last October, he also has a new stand-alone called The Boys of Blur that is getting a lot of notice and good reviews. (I haven’t read Empire of Bones yet, but I’ve heard good things about it, too.)

The Boys of Blur is a combination of football, sugarcane, and Beowulf. If you don’t see how those subjects fit together, you’ll have to read the book. Well, the video teaser above might give you some idea about the football and the sugarcane, I suppose.

Saturday Review of Books: June 21, 2014


“It was still in good condition, probably because most people checked out the electronic versions of books. I preferred the real thing. I liked the way I could fold over the oversized cover flap on this one to mark a place. I liked the way I could fan through the pages and create a small breeze that smelled of paper and ink and old brick building with tall streaked windows and polished dark wood floors and warm oval rugs.” ~Epitaph Road by David Patenaude

SatReviewbutton

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. 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.