Latest Newbery Reads

In which I share mini reviews of the latest Newbery books I've read. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Lately I’ve been buried in reading projects other than reading through the Newbery books, so I only have a couple of Newberys to talk about in today’s review. (I hope to share my latest reading project with you all soon–I have many thoughts about it!)

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

Welcome to the night, where mice stir and furry moths flutter. Where snails spiral into shells as orb spiders circle in silk. Where the roots of oak trees recover and repair from their time in the light. Where the porcupette eats delicacies—raspberry leaves!—and coos and sings.

Come out to the cool, night wood, and buzz and hoot and howl—but do beware of the great horned owl—for it’s wild and it’s windy way out in the woods! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Dark Emperor consists of cute poems about the animals and plants that come alive during the night. I especially appreciated the notes from the author which offer more details about each plant or animal mentioned in the poems. The illustrations by Rick Allen are gorgeous as well. I can imagine this book being a great bedtime read for older children.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Ood-le-uk the Wanderer

Ood-le-uk, an American Eskimo boy, accidentally gets across the Bering Strait when his boat is swept to sea. After three years of wandering in Asia and having many exciting adventures, Ood-le-uk returns home and is instrumental in helping establish trade between his tribe and Siberian tradesmen. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Oh, the classic Newberys… This would have been an interesting survival story about living in Alaska and Serbia, but there’s a lot of old timey racism here. Despite the interesting stories about Inuit life, there is too much here that would make modern readers cringe for me to recommend the book. (If you want an updated take on children surviving in the wilderness, may I suggest my childhood favorite, Gary Paulsen?)

Rating: Skip This One

Newbery Reviews: 1940

Unfortunately, the 1940 Newbery books were not really my favorites. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s time for another Newbery roundup! This time I’m retroactively reviewing the 1940 Newbery books that I read as a child. And I’m sorry to say there were no real winners from that year. (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)

Medal Winner: Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone was a farmer who couldn’t stay put. Something was always pulling him westward into new and mysterious lands, and when this pull got so strong that he could no longer ignore it, and his wife and children could not persuade him to stay, he just went, with his toes pointing into the West and his eyes glued to the hills.

As a child, I knew a fair amount about Daniel Boone. He lived an interesting life full of adventure, and any kid who enjoys adventure stories is likely to enjoy learning about Daniel Boone’s life. Still, I found this book just okay. It definitely shows its age, and despite the interesting material, it couldn’t keep my attention for long.

Rating: Meh

Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz

Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz is a children’s biography of the nineteenth-century paleontologist and natural scientist Louis Agassiz by Mabel Robinson. It tells his life story from his boyhood in Switzerland to his professorship at Harvard.

When I read this book as a kid, I found it pretty awful. It was dry and boring, as many children’s biographies were at the time. Unless for some reason your child has a fascination with Louis Agassiz (I don’t know any children who do), I’d skip this book.

Rating: Skip This One

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Laura and her family are head to the Dakota Territory for a chance to own their own land–and stop moving. The new town of De Smet is filling up with settlers lured west by the promise of free land, and the Ingalls family must do whatever it takes too defend their claim.

If you enjoy the Little House on the Prairie series, I don’t need to tell you about this book. I enjoyed it when I read it, but it kind of blurs together with all the other books in the series. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that these books are classics for a reason–if you or your kids haven’t read them yet, give them a shot!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Mini Review

This 1929 Newbery book is not worth your time. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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This book is the only Newbery book from 1929 that I hadn’t already read. It’s a book of short stories and poems, many of which are based on historical events, myths, or fairy tales. This is going to be a very short review, because The Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo consists of intricate but racist illustrations and a variety of fun, funny, or boring racist/sexist stories and poems. People, just leave this book alone.

Rating: Skip This One

Despite my usual hatred for short stories in general and this book in particular, I really like this quote about short stories by Neil Gaiman:

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”

This post is part of the Write 31 Days series, Lovely Words. You can see all the posts in this series here.

Newbery Review: Clearing Weather

Clearing Weather: the latest Newbery review from NewberyandBeyond.com
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The story of young Nicholas Drury’s struggle to maintain his uncle’s shipyard in a Massachusetts town in the difficult years following the American Revolution. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Clearing Weather tells the story of the years right after the Revolutionary War. Nicholas is in charge of his uncle’s failing business when he decides to build his own ship and set it off in search of riches. This is not a bad story; I found myself enjoying the plot in many places, but it’s full of racism and sexism. For that reason, I found this book unsalvageable.
Rating: Skip This One

ARC Roundup: Nonfiction

Another ARC roundup: some terrible nonfiction and one book that was very, very good. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received the following books from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Although nonfiction almost always takes a back seat to the fiction I like to read, I’ve read several nonfiction ARCs in the last few weeks. Two of them were pretty terrible; one I didn’t even finish, despite the fact that it was about a topic close to my heart. The third, however, was awesome, and I’ll definitely be looking at it again in the future.

Schools on Trial

I really, really wanted to love this book. Goyal discusses the state of American schools today (a topic you know I care about), and he offers innovative solutions to the problems that they face. However, I really took issue with the way the author presented his arguments and opinions. I hate to say this, but the author is only 20 years old, and you can tell from his writing. He has that untempered anger that I and many of my friends had in our college years, and while I don’t doubt that he and many others have been harmed by our poor school system, I would have taken him a lot more seriously had he taken others’ viewpoints more seriously.

I don’t agree with Goyal’s basic premise that children should learn solely (or mainly) through play and self-directed learning, and I’m skeptical about his claim that students who enjoy school are suffering from Stockholm syndrome. If the author had taken the arguments of educators, parents, and policymakers seriously and responded to them thoughtfully, I think this book would have been ten times better, even though I may not agree with Goyal’s ideas. Unfortunately, as it is, I can’t recommend this book.

Rating: DNF

Love Louder

I did finish this book, but not really because I enjoyed it. I skimmed it through to the end to see if there was anything new or interesting (spoiler alert: there wasn’t much).

Basically, this book is a self-love style book (you might remember a similar book I picked up and also didn’t enjoy recently). I always pick up these books looking for something new and interesting, but despite a mix of scientific ideas and “woo woo” stuff, there were very few mind-blowing moments. It’s all the same old “be more mindful” and “accept yourself” and “don’t let others tell you how to live your life.” The author himself has had some interesting experiences (druggie friends, friends who were shot and killed, his own heart problems at a young age), but I would have been much more interested in reading his inspirational memoir than his totally unoriginal self-help book.

Rating: Skip This One

Smarter Faster Better

This book, on the other hand, was incredibly useful and interesting. Just like Duhigg’s last book, Smarter Faster Better is filled with a nice mix of scientific studies and real-life stories. This book is focused on productivity, and while this one doesn’t have as tight a storyline as his book on habits, I still found plenty of things to chew on.

Duhigg fills his book with stories of groups that have gotten it right, from Toyota factories to the Frozen filmmakers to the Marines. Each chapter (and each group) illustrates a different concept, including goal setting, focus, and decision making. It’s a fascinating pop psychology book that will have real-life applications, whether in your business or in your personal life.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Mini Newbery Review: The Great Quest

Despite a Treasure Island-esque story and interesting characters, this 1922 Newbery book is marred by racist ideas. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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The story opens in fictional Topham, Massachusetts, in 1826. After con man Cornelius “Neal” Gleazen unexpectedly returns to town, he involves boyhood friend Seth Woods and Seth’s nephew, twenty-year-old protagonist Josiah “Joe” Woods, in a dangerous sea journey to retrieve a hidden treasure. Accompanying them are Seth’s two store-clerks, Arnold Lamont and Sim Muzzy, and farmer Abraham Guptil, on whose mortgage Neal forced Seth to foreclose in order to raise money to outfit the expedition.

When the travellers reach Cuba it is revealed that there is no hidden treasure, and that Neal’s actual intent is to kidnap native Africans from to Guinea sell as slaves. However, it is not until they reach Africa that Joe, Seth, and the others find an opportunity to take control of the expedition from Neal. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

The Great Quest is a Newbery honor book from 1922, the very first year the award was given. I just finished reading it, and I had mixed feelings about it.

On one hand, the story is great. It’s entertaining, dramatic, almost Treasure Island-esque. Joe, the main character, is a young man who finds himself swept up in an adventure with some unsavory characters and a couple of good friends on his side. They go through battles, shipwrecks, illness, and many other trials, all in search of treasure that may or may not materialize.

On the other hand… This book is pretty old, and, I have to say—it’s pretty racist. Although the main character and his friends abhor slavery and are horrified that the aforementioned unsavory characters are slavers, there are plenty of patronizing views of black people, especially the Africans they fight against when they land on the coast of Africa. At first I thought I could ignore the racism, as I have to do in many older books that I read, but since a large portion of the book takes place in Africa, it’s pretty unavoidable.

Because of this, I can’t fully recommend this book, despite its entertaining story and interesting characters. Proceed with caution if you’re interested, and don’t give this book to young children.

Rating: Skip This One

Review Copy: With a Little Help from My Friend

Unfortunately, this incredibly short book is still not worth your time. #spon | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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Note: I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

Before you read my review, please enjoy this summary, sent to me by the publishers.

A young man from Huddersfield, Gary Simpson, journeys down to London to broaden his horizons, leaving behind his family and the girl he loves. He is quickly plunged into the high-earning, fast-living, easy-loving world of bond-trading, but it is a world that cannot last. Returning to Huddersfield and his old family home, he is confronted by a series of revelations: some unwelcome, others full of potential. Gary does his best to accept his new reality, and finds himself buoyed up by the beautiful words that came to him suddenly and mysteriously on his first journey to London, years earlier, which he has never forgotten. He determines to succeed despite his changed circumstances – with a little help from his friend.

Written with an admirable simplicity, an eye for telling detail and a sense of things beyond the material world, With a Little Help from My Friend is a book to engage the mind and gladden the heart.

Unfortunately, I did not get any of that out of this book.  This book is all telling and no showing, and it’s full of mundane phrases and details.  There’s no real plot, although I thought the idea of this book was solid.  Things just happen: Gary simply goes to London, gets a job, moves to a new apartment, goes home, and learns some new things about the people in his hometown.  It’s unfortunate, because if the story and characters were fleshed out, this story could have been an interesting look into the changing circumstances of life and how Gary handled them.

It always pains me to speak badly of a book I’ve been sent for review, but I’m committed to calling it the way I see it on my blog.  And the way I see it is, this book is not worth your time.

Rating: Skip This One

Review Copy: Serpent on a Cross

Note: I received a digital copy of Serpent on a Cross from the publisher for review consideration.

Book Review: Serpent on a Cross #spon | Newbery and Beyond
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How I have dreaded writing this review.  Before I begin, here is the summary from Goodreads:

Dennah Dubrovnika is a formidable hunter and talented healer. However, she cannot control her own powers, which have suddenly reawakened in the aftermath of her mother’s violent capture by a powerful warlord who destroyed their village in his wake. As she races to free her mother, Dennah is accompanied by Jeth, the man she loves. But she’s increasingly, inexorably drawn to the mysterious Skallon, who is allied with her greatest enemy.

I really had high hopes for this book, that although fantasy is not usually my thing (sorry, LOTR fans!), this book would be an unusual take on the usual medieval fantasy tropes.  But it was not to be.  I found this book confusing and boring, and if I hadn’t already agreed to read and review it, I would have set it down after the first chapter.

This book is set to be the first in a series, and it definitely shows.  This book was mostly back story, starting with Dennah’s very young childhood, when she was first discovering her powers and still living happily with both parents.  Shortly after the story begins, however, Tarkan comes in, forcing Dennah and her mother, Althea, to flee.  Tarkan, it turns out, is Althea’s father (and although Dennah is shocked by this later in the book, I’m pretty sure the readers know it from the beginning), and he is collecting people with powers for a reason that I can’t remember being explained.  Althea takes Dennah to a nearby village, where she casts a spell to make Dennah forget her powers, and they live for several years as healers of the village.

This led to my first problem with the book–the setting.  Serpent on a Cross is a fantasy about Jewish magic in medieval Eastern Europe and Russia.  I was extremely confused by this, probably because I know nothing about Jewish magic and mysticism (who knew such a thing even existed? she said naively), and very little about Russia during medieval times.  There is also a mix of Hebrew/Yiddish and Russian words, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s a book that needs a glossary.  Maybe I’m just lazy, but I find it very confusing, and I don’t like to be drawn out of the story in order to flip to the back of the book and look up a word.

Eventually, Tarkan invades the village in which Althea and Dennah have taken refuge.  Althea is captured, and Dennah breaks the spell and starts to remember her powers.  She and a few friends from the village who have survived decide to try to rescue Althea, and they set off, meeting up with friends and foes along the way, most importantly, Miraum.  As they travel, they have to fight off enemies and keep discord from dividing the group.  I had a real problem with the way sexuality was discussed throughout this section and the book as a whole.  The raping of women by Tarkan’s men is described, not in detail, but enough to make me squirm and feel a little sick.  A strange, sexual dream is described, in which Dennah finds herself drawn to Skallon, one of Tarkan’s affiliates, which also made me kind of uncomfortable.  There’s also a subtle sexism throughout, which I’m sure is time period appropriate, but it still didn’t make me feel very fond of the book.  Scenes like these are the main reason I filed this book under “Adult Fiction” instead of “YA Fiction.”

My favorite character in this book was Miraum, or basically, the Baba Yaga!  Maybe I just have a weakness for stories about the Baba Yaga, but I found Miraum an interesting character, and I wished there was more about her in this book.  She helped Althea develop her powers, and she also starts to help Dennah do the same.  Which brings me to another complaint–why are their powers so needlessly confusing?  Basically, the work like ribbons (?), which I thought was interesting, but a bit odd, as you have to use your metaphysical hands to entwine the ribbons and allow them to work in harmony.  Also, each person with powers has two ribbons–one for the dark side of their power, and the other for the light side.  However, the dark-colored ribbon represents the light side of the power, and the light-colored ribbon represents the dark side.  Why?  Why make this so complicated?  Another also–Dennah has a combination of emerald and moonstone, which stand for wisdom and manipulation.  This combination has never been seen before, and everyone is shocked at her powers–she has a bit of the “Chosen One” syndrome.

After Dennah spends a bit of time in Miraum’s house, honing her skills, they set off once again to fight Tarkan.  They do reach him, but that’s basically the end.  I felt a little cheated after reading for so long through something I disliked that there was no big payoff.  It’s very clear that this book is just a set up for a series, which I really think could be interesting, but I doubt I’ll pick up the next book to find out.

Honestly, I don’t think I was the right audience for this book, as I generally have little patience for battles, books without even a hint of comedy, subtle sexism (even in the name of historical accuracy) and not-so-subtle rapes, convoluted rules about magic powers, and glossaries.  But–and I hate to say this when someone has been so kind as to send me a copy of their book for review–I don’t think this book was very good, either.  That’s why I’ve been putting off this review for so long–it pains me to say I disliked something when I know the person who created it will probably find out.  But this is my honest review: Unless you’re really into fantasy, or have a lot more patience than I do with the genre’s quirks, let this one go.

Rating: Skip This One

Book Review: The Music Lesson

Book Review: The Music Lesson | Newbery and Beyond
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Well.  First of all, I picked up this book, not knowing anything about it, solely based on the title, The Music Lesson.  It became clear immediately that this book isn’t actually about music lessons of any kind.  Instead, it’s about a Vermeer painting called The Music Lesson.  Okay, I thought.  This could still be good.  I like Vermeer’s paintings.  I like learning about other countries (the book is set in Ireland).  So I checked it out of my library.

The plot follows Patricia Dolan, an American with deep Irish roots.  She has moved temporarily to Ireland because she has been involved in the theft of one of Vermeer’s paintings.  When Mickey, supposedly a long-lost Irish cousin, comes to town asking for help, Patricia immediately agrees.  She falls in love with Mickey, and eventually uses her expertise as an art historian/researcher to help Mickey and some of his Irish friends steal the Vermeer painting.  It turns out that Mickey and his friends are part of the IRA, and the theft was supposed to be a snub toward the British.  I admit that I don’t know all the details of the British/Irish conflict, and this book relies heavily on them–maybe that’s part of why I didn’t get much out of this book?

The reviews on the back of the book claim that this story will explore the darkness of obsession, but honestly?  It was kind of boring.  It’s written as Patricia’s confession, a journal that she hides carefully for later readers to find, and it is boring.  There is one twist at the end that I didn’t see coming, involving the final fate of the painting, but for the most part, there wasn’t much to it.  There was no real mystery, since you begin the book knowing that she helped steal the painting, and you know that the two reasons she did are A: she’s Irish, and B: she fell in love with Mickey, the guy in charge of the heist, and there really isn’t much art history in the book either.  The writing itself is good; I really enjoyed the descriptions of the blustery, foggy Irish weather and the inhabitants of the village where Patricia is staying.  Still, Patricia hid herself from the villagers–she had just committed a crime, remember?  So even the human interaction parts of the book come mostly through Patricia’s remembrances of her earlier life.  Sure, sad things happened to her in the past, but she relates them so blandly–so numbly–that I never really felt sad for her.  I just felt annoyed with her for getting so wrapped up in getting physical with Mickey that she was totally caught off guard when he wasn’t all he had said he was.  Whatever, Patricia.

Rating: Skip This One

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