Newbery Roundup: February 2017

I'm making progress in my Newbery book challenge! You can read reviews of the latest Newbery books I've read here. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m taking part in the Newbery book challenge hosted by Smiling Shelves (because how could I not??), and so far I’m making good progress. I read several Newbery books in February, bringing my total points up to 15 (from 7 books). In this post, I’m providing quick reviews of three of the books I read recently. (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)

Because of Winn Dixie

The summer Opal and her father, the preacher, move to Naomi, Florida, Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket–and comes out with a dog. A big, ugly, suffering dog with a sterling sense of humor. A dog she dubs Winn-Dixie. Winn-Dixie is better at making friends than anyone Opal has ever known, and together they meet the local librarian, Miss Franny Block, who once fought off a bear with a copy of WAR AND PEACE. They meet Gloria Dump, who is nearly blind but sees with her heart, and Otis, an ex-con who sets the animals in his pet shop loose after hours, then lulls them with his guitar.

I read this book as a child and just recently re-read it. I loved the book then, and I was pleased to see that I still love it now. Ten-year-old Opal and her dog, Winn-Dixie, make friends with everyone in their Florida town as Opal finally comes to grips with her mother leaving her and her father.

Kate DiCamillo is a multiple-time Newbery honoree, and for good reason. Especially in this book, her characters are wonderful. From Opal’s father, who she thinks of as “the pastor,” to the local librarian to an ex-con with a heart of gold to an old woman the other kids call a witch, small town life never seemed so sweet. If you haven’t read this book, you must.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Dobry

A Bulgarian peasant boy must convince his mother that he is destined to be a sculptor, not a farmer.

Dobry offers a pretty interesting look at Bulgarian peasant life, but the characters don’t experience growth. Goodreads doesn’t have much to say about this book, and neither do I. I enjoyed the depictions of the peasant children’s lives and then immediately forgot about it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Jumping-Off Place

In the early 1900s, four orphaned siblings, the eldest being seventeen, set out to fulfill their uncle’s dream of homesteading in Tripp County, South Dakota, and although they face drought, discomfort, and sabotaging squatters, new friends and inner strength help them carry on.

I love stories about homesteading, and this one–about four children who prove up their own homestead when their uncle dies before he can move there–is really interesting. If you like books about children doing things without adult supervision, this is for you.

Warning: There is a blatant use of the n-word early in the book, shocking (at least to modern ears) in how casual its use is. Please be aware if you decide to give this book to a child.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Are any of you participating in this book challenge? I’d love to hear about your progress!

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

A review of Chris Cleave's "Everyone Brave is Forgiven"--everyone's talking about it for a reason. | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.

Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

If you haven’t heard about this book yet, well, you’ve probably not been paying attention. Everyone in the book world has been talking about Everyone Brave is Forgiven since it came out last year. After (finally) reading it, I can see why.

Like many summer blockbuster novels, the writing is beautiful. Cleave does a wonderful job of introducing sympathetic but deeply flawed characters–Mary is not a very good teacher, and she fights her family, her best friend, and even herself throughout most of the book for reasons that are often selfish (mild *spoiler alert*: Mary’s addiction to morphine made the second half of the book difficult for me to read); Tom can be wishy-washy and uncommitted; and Alistair’s time in Malta turns him into someone who’s willing to make poor, sometimes deadly choices.

The book focuses on the effects of war on individuals, particularly those on the home front. From the evacuations of school children to the minstrel shows that continue despite the bombings to time spent in subpar air raid shelters, we see every horrible detail of life in London during WWII. Alistair provides us with a look into military life, but that is by no means the focus of the story.

A lot of reviewers focus on the “witty banter” of the characters, and it’s true that the dialogue is just as sharply written as the narrative. Still, the author never lets you forget all the horrible things that happen. Children die, soldiers succumb to infection and starvation, drug addiction and racism abound. (On that note, I found this post by the author about his choice to include the n-word in his book really interesting.)

I enjoyed this book, although not as much as many other book reviewers did. Maybe it’s because my reading life has already been saturated with books about WWII–that’s why I put off reading it as long as I did–but for whatever reason, Everyone Brave is Forgiven just didn’t capture me. I’m glad that I read it, but I don’t foresee reading it again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Reviews: 1938

In which Kate Seredy finally wins a Newbery medal and Laura Ingalls Wilder wins a Newbery honor. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Medal Winner: The White Stag
Finally Kate Seredy wins a Newbery Medal! This book of myths from the Hungarian culture is by the author of The Good Master and The Singing Tree, and if you remember how much I enjoyed those books, you’ll have an idea of how I felt about this one. I’m not usually a fan of myths, but these are well written and a beautiful look at a country to which I feel a deep connection.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

On the Banks of Plum Creek
This book is part of the Little House on the Prairie series, which I loved as a child. This one wasn’t my favorite, but it fits well in the series. Other than that, I honestly can’t remember much about this book–all of them seem to blur together. It may be time for a Little House on the Prairie readthrough!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Dodger

Dodger is a fun story from Terry Pratchett about a street urchin in Dickens' London. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he’s…Dodger.

Seventeen-year-old Dodger may be a street urchin, but he gleans a living from London’s sewers, and he knows a jewel when he sees one. He’s not about to let anything happen to the unknown girl–not even if her fate impacts some of the most powerful people in England.

From Dodger’s encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd to his meetings with the great writer Charles Dickens and the calculating politician Benjamin Disraeli, history and fantasy intertwine in a breathtaking account of adventure and mystery. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

So I’ve never read a Terry Pratchett book (except for Good Omens, which he co-wrote with the amazing Neil Gaiman). I know, I know! How can this be? Well, fantasy isn’t usually my thing, and all I know about Terry Pratchett is his massive Discworld series. One day I’ll tackle that, but when I came across this standalone novel in audio form, I thought I’d give it a try.

But Dodger wasn’t anything like what I thought it would be. For one thing, there are no sci fi/fantasy elements in it at all! Dodger is a young man growing up on the dirty streets of Victorian London, but when he is caught standing up for a young woman, his life takes a sudden turn. He meets Charlie Dickens, Sweeney Todd, and Benjamin Disraeli, mixing actual historic figures with those from fiction.

Dodger is a great character, and his scrapes on (and below) the streets of London were fun to read about, and the audio version I listened to had a great narrator, but on the whole I found this book forgettable. Here’s hoping that the next Terry Pratchett book I pick up will wow me like I was expecting this one to do.

Of course, in keeping with my Write 31 Days series called Lovely Words, here are a few of my favorite quotes from Dodger. (Terry Pratchett has such a clever way with words.)

“Money makes people rich; it is a fallacy to think it makes them better, or even that it makes them worse. People are what they do, and what they leave behind.”

“There were two ways of looking at the world, but only one when you are starving.”

“The man gave Dodger a cursory glance that had quite a lot of curse in it.”

Rating: Good but Forgettable

This post is part of the Write 31 Days series Lovely Words. You can read the rest of the series here.

The Tilted World

The Tilted World is a great historical fiction drama about a little-known natural disaster in the United States. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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The year is 1927. As rains swell the Mississippi, the mighty river threatens to burst its banks and engulf all in its path, including federal revenue agent Ted Ingersoll and his partner, Ham Johnson. Arriving in the tiny hamlet of Hobnob, Mississippi, to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents on the trail of a local bootlegger, they unexpectedly find an abandoned baby boy at a crime scene.

An orphan raised by nuns, Ingersoll is determined to find the infant a home, a search that leads him to Dixie Clay Holliver. A lonely woman married too young to a charming and sometimes violent philanderer, Dixie Clay has lost her only child to illness and is powerless to resist this second chance at motherhood.

Then a deadly new peril arises, endangering them all. Now, with time running out, Ingersoll, Ham, and Dixie Clay must make desperate choices, choices that will radically transform their lives-if they survive. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I love historical fiction, but I haven’t read much lately, as most of the historical fiction books that have come out recently have taken themselves very seriously. (That’s not always a bad thing, but I’m not often in the mood for any book that can be described as “sweeping.”) The Tilted World, on the other hand, is not only great historical fiction, but also has fascinating characters and drama that will keep you turning pages.

Dixie Clay, a young woman married to an alcohol distributer in the midst of Prohibition, has become a moonshiner herself, using the constant activity to keep her from dwelling on the death of her infant son. Ingersoll is a revenuer who comes across an orphan baby and unwittingly hands him over to Dixie Clay. Both are fun characters, and their interactions provide some great moments.

But the real drama comes from the historical background. In the 1920s, there was a huge amount of rain that swelled the Mississippi river, and the subsequent flooding produced one of the greatest natural disasters the United States has ever seen–and I had never heard of it before picking up this book. I loved the backwoods Southern town that featured so heavily in the book, and I loved learning about this real-life disaster that had somehow escaped my knowledge.

There is some language and sexual content, so be aware if those aren’t your things. Otherwise, The Tilted World is a lot of fun. It has interesting characters, a great setting, and a historical backdrop that will inform you about one of this country’s greatest forgotten disasters.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Review Copy: Death at the Paris Exposition

Death at the Paris Exposition is a great historical fiction mystery filled with gorgeous fashion, socialites, and murder. #spon | NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Amateur sleuth Emily Cabot’s journey once again takes her to a world’s fair–the Paris Exposition of 1900. Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer is named the only female U. S. commissioner to the Exposition and enlists Emily’s services as her secretary. Their visit to the House of Worth for the fitting of a couture gown is interrupted by the theft of Mrs. Palmer’s famous pearl necklace. Before that crime can be solved, several young women meet untimely deaths and a member of the Palmer’s inner circle is accused of the crimes. As Emily races to clear the family name she encounters jealous society ladies, American heiresses seeking titled European husbands, and more luscious gowns and priceless jewels. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Death at the Paris Exposition is the sixth book in the series, but this was my first experience with Emily and her adventures. If you’re like me and pick this book up out of order, don’t worry–it won’t take away from your enjoyment and understanding of the book.

This story revolves around Bertha Palmer (a real, historic Chicago socialite) and her family’s troubles. Emily, our main character, is Mrs. Palmer’s social secretary, and as such, she and her family have been invited to Paris to see the 1900 Paris exposition. But as these rich and privileged people (and the many lower-class people surrounding them) prepare for the upcoming festivities, their fun is marred by several thefts and a couple of murders.

The author does a fantastic job of exploring Paris at the turn of the century. I loved the descriptions of fashion at the Paris exposition, especially. The characters spend a lot of time at the House of Worth, a couture house in Paris, and each of the women’s dresses are described in vivid detail.

While the setting is well fleshed out, some of the characters are not. Bertha Palmer is an interesting character, but her (fictional) counterparts, like the Johnstones, are often static. An unfortunate side effect of the focus on fashion does portray some of the women as shallow, since they think of little other than the newest gowns and their efforts to snag a high-class European husband. Even Emily’s own husband gets little page time, even though he spends most of his time in the same social circles.

Still, the mystery was engaging, and I was definitely surprised by the ending. This is a fun book for those who want a historical mystery that’s rich in detail and don’t mind if some of the characters fall flat.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

 P.S. Want to know what other mysteries I’ve been enjoying lately? Check out Crashed, The Likeness, and Till Death Do Us Tart.

ARCs: YA Fiction

These two new books from YA fiction are interesting, but my favorite was definitely "Freedom's Just Another Word." #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received these books free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Summaries are via NetGalley.com.

I’ve not been reading as much YA fiction as I usually do, and both of these ARCs were pretty lackluster. (Hopefully I’ll have more luck with YA fiction again soon–until then, I have a stack of adult fiction to keep me busy!)

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett

“Hawthorn wasn’t trying to insert herself into a missing person’s investigation. Or maybe she was. But that’s only because Lizzie Lovett’s disappearance is the one fascinating mystery their sleepy town has ever had. Bad things don’t happen to popular girls like Lizzie Lovett, and Hawthorn is convinced she’ll turn up at any moment—which means the time for speculation is now.

So Hawthorn comes up with her own theory for Lizzie’s disappearance. A theory way too absurd to take seriously…at first. The more Hawthorn talks, the more she believes. And what better way to collect evidence than to immerse herself in Lizzie’s life? Like getting a job at the diner where Lizzie worked and hanging out with Lizzie’s boyfriend. After all, it’s not as if he killed her—or did he?

Told with a unique voice that is both hilarious and heart-wrenching, Hawthorn’s quest for proof may uncover the greatest truth is within herself.”

I thought this book was all right. I found Hawthorn very irritating, especially at the beginning: She’s self-centered, whiny, and jealous, and while cynics might say, “That’s just how teenagers are,” I have to think that most teenagers reading the book would be put off by Hawthorn. The plot itself was nothing special. I was expecting something a little more thriller-y, and this definitely wasn’t. I did like Hawthorn’s family (though, of course, she loathed her mom’s quirkiness and hated her brother’s “interference” in her life). Maybe look elsewhere if you’re looking for either a mystery/thriller or a coming-of-age story.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Freedom’s Just Another Word

“The year Louisiana – Easy for short – meets Janis Joplin is the year everything changes. Easy is a car mechanic in her dad’s shop, but she can sing the blues like someone twice her age. So when she hears that Janis Joplin is passing through her small town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Easy is there with her heart – and her voice – in hand. It’s 1970 and Janis Joplin is an electrifying blues-rock singer at the height of her fame – and of her addictions. Yet she recognizes Easy’s talent and asks her to meet her in Texas to sing. So Easy begins an unusual journey that will change everything.”

This book was pretty interesting, if a little sad. Easy is an African-American girl growing up in the 1970s, and her one dream is to become a blues singer. So when Easy meets Janis Joplin and gets invited to sing with her in Texas, Easy jumps at the chance–even though it means road-tripping with a couple of nuns to get there.

During the course of the story, the author discusses racism, being judgmental, and drug and alcohol abuse. There’s nothing too heavy, but it’s not a lighthearted book, either. The one thing I disliked about Freedom’s Just Another Word is that some parts felt disjointed, and certain plot threads were wrapped up too quickly. Still, this book is worth a look if you’re interested in getting a glimpse of early 1970s American culture.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Reviews: 1933

A quick review of the 1933 Newbery medal and honor books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In our journey through the early years of Newbery winners, we have now come to the place in which I have actually read many of the books, but I read them so long ago or they were so unmemorable that I have little to say about them. Although I definitely read these 1933 Newbery books, I have very little memory of them. Still, I’ll offer you my best thoughts to help you decide whether or not you (or your kid) will enjoy them.

Medal Winner: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

When Young Fu arrives with his mother in bustling 1920s Chungking, all he has seen of the world is the rural farming village where he has grown up. He knows nothing of city life. But the city, with its wonders and dangers, fascinates the thirteen-year-old boy, and he sets out to make the best of what it has to offer him. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I have memories of reading this book for school as a kid, and to this day, most of what I know about 1900s China probably comes from this book (sad but true). This is the kind of book that made me love historical fiction, and I would be totally interested in reading it again sometime.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Swift Rivers

Barred from his family homestead by his mean-spirited uncle, eighteen-year-old Chris weathers a Minnesota winter in a small cabin with his grandfather. Poverty and the tempting stories of a wandering Easterner convince Chris to harvest the trees on his grandfather’s land and float the logs down the spring floodwaters of the Mississippi to the lumber mills in Saint Louis. Filled with stories of raft hands and river pilots, this fast-paced novel has all the momentum of the great Mississippi. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

In my original notes from reading this book, I wrote that it was “surprisingly interesting and usually fast-paced.” Does that mean I remember it? Apparently not. But I can tell you that if I wrote “surprisingly interesting” about a book about logging down the Mississippi, “surprisingly” is the key word.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Review Copy: Mercer Street

Mercer Street is a fun but forgettable novel filled with romance, drama, and time travel. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of Mercer Street from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Weeks after her husband dies in the midst of an affair in 2016, Chicago writer Susan Peterson, 48, seeks solace on a California vacation with her mother Elizabeth and daughter Amanda. The novelist, however, finds more than she bargained for when she meets a professor who possesses the secret of time travel. Within days, the women travel to 1938 and Princeton, New Jersey. Elizabeth begins a friendship with her refugee parents and infant self, while Susan and Amanda fall for a widowed admiral and a German researcher with troubling ties. Filled with poignancy, heartbreak, and intrigue, MERCER STREET gives new meaning to courage, sacrifice, and commitment as it follows three strong-willed souls on the adventure of a lifetime. (Summary via Amazon.com)

I have read and reviewed a couple of Heldt’s books before, and they are always a pleasure to read. This book is the second in the series which began with September Sky, a book I really enjoyed. If you have read September Sky, some of the beginning, in which the professor explains how time travel works and guides his protegees in their adventure into the past, will be familiar to you. This is good news to brand new readers, though, because you don’t have to have read September Sky to understand and enjoy Mercer Street.

In this book, three generations of women who have recently experienced tragedy are taking a much-needed vacation when they come across the eccentric professor. They slowly begin to believe his incredible stories and decide to take the professor up on his offer to send them back in time. The women travel to New Jersey in the late 1930s, with war brewing across the ocean. As Elizabeth, Susan, and Amanda begin to settle into their new but temporary life in the 30s, they are each faced with difficult decisions about how their past will affect their futures.

I must admit that I did not enjoy this book as much as I did its predecessor. Although I love World War II fiction, I enjoyed the lesser-known events of the previous book in the series. I’m also not a huge fan of romance, which takes up a lot of space in this book. However, the characters were well-written and interesting, and as always, Heldt has a gift for making the reader feel present in whatever era his characters end up in.

If you’re a fan of time travel historical fiction and you don’t mind a bit of romance with your story, you will love this book! I’m definitely looking forward to the next installment in this series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC: The Palest Ink

A fascinating and informative look at China's Cultural Revolution. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Summary via NetGalley.com.

Set against the backdrop of Chairman Mao’s tumultuous Chinese Revolution, bestselling author Kay Bratt’s The Palest Ink is a beautifully rendered novel about two best friends from very different walks of life.

A sheltered son from an intellectual family in Shanghai, Benfu spends 1966 anticipating a promising violinist career and an arranged marriage. On the other side of town lives Pony Boy, a member of a lower-class family—but Benfu’s best friend all the same. Their futures look different but guaranteed…until they’re faced with a perilous opportunity to leave a mark on history.

At the announcement of China’s Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao’s Red Guard members begin their assault, leaving innocent victims in their wake as they surge across the country. With political turmoil at their door, both Benfu and Pony Boy must face heart-wrenching decisions regarding family, friendship, courage, and loyalty to their country during one of the most chaotic periods in history.

I have to admit my almost total ignorance about China’s Cultural Revolution before I read this book. I asked my husband when I started reading the book, “What exactly was happening in China in the 60s?” Boy, did I find out.

Benfu is the teenage son of two scholars who expect him to follow in their footsteps, becoming a professor and marrying the girl they have chosen for him. However, Benfu would rather spend his time playing violin and helping his lower-class friend, Pony Boy, support his family. But when Chairman Mao’s revolution begins sweeping the nation, neither of these dreams come to pass. Benfu and Pony Boy are both caught up in the chaos as they both do their best to keep their heads down, watching friends and family be mistreated and sometimes facing extreme circumstances themselves. They are soon presented with the opportunity to speak up about the atrocities being committed in the name of creating a modern China, but this opportunity may cost them–and their families–everything.

I was amazed at how much I learned by reading this book. According to the author, the destruction and crimes committed as part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution are only now starting to be discussed in China, so I was glad to learn more about this little-known piece of history. Chairman Mao and his followers committed atrocities on the level of Stalin or Hitler, and it was heartbreaking to witness two teenagers as they watched their world fall apart and their families and neighbors turn on each other. As a lover of history, it was also horrifying to read about how much of China’s rich historical and cultural artifacts were destroyed for being too “bourgeoise” during this period.

Benfu and Pony Boy are both interesting characters, and I enjoyed following their very different journeys and decisions. I found the book slow at the start, but once the action really began, I couldn’t put the book down. Highly recommended for teenagers or adults who are fans of historical fiction and want to learn more about this chaotic period of China’s history.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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