The Story of Land and Sea
Katy Simpson Smith (Adult Fiction)
Tabitha’s grandmother died in childbirth as did her own mother. “Death only comes to mothers,” she thinks and a mother she’ll never be. But when young Tabitha is suddenly struck with yellow fever, her now land-bound father, John, returns to the sea with Tab in an effort to save her life. After all, it was the sea that once gave life to her mother, Helen, and John is convinced that the sea can cure Tab as well. Land, he knows, only brings about death.
Smith breaks her story into three parts: the first part (set in 1793) introduces us to John and his daughter Tab and their life in Beaufort; the second part (1771-1782) gives us a young Helen and her servant Moll and shows us how Helen and John meet; and the final part (1793-1794) concentrates on Helen’s father, Asa, as well as an adult Moll and her son, Davy. The story spans three generations and deals with issues of loss, loneliness, and grief.
This is probably, by far, one of the bleakest books I have ever read. Although this book is beautifully written, it gives away the fates of several main characters much too early in the story, leaving readers with a lot of backstory and very little else to look forward to. Smith also deals heavily in religion and so we expect some semblance of redemption or spiritual revelation. Again, the reader is left empty-handed. But what might be the most incomprehensible decision Smith makes is choosing to devote the last third of her novel to perhaps the most uninteresting and uninspiring character in the entire book. I wish this book had finished as strongly as it started, but unfortunately The Story of Land and Sea is really just a story without point or purpose.
* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs
Betty G. Birney (Juvenile Fiction)
“Sometimes extraordinary things begin in ordinary places” and, according to 11-year old Eben McAllister, there is absolutely, positively NO place more ordinary than Sassafras Springs. On this particularly hot July day, while Eben is buried in his book about the Seven Wonders of the World, his father offers him a deal: find seven Wonders in seven days in Sassafras Springs and he will buy Eben a ticket to Colorado. SEVEN? Eben can’t imagine even finding ONE Wonder let alone seven. But with a ticket out of town on the line, Eben is ready, willing, and able to look just about anywhere and everywhere to find them.
With folksy, down-home dialogue and quirky, lovable characters, Birney makes even an ordinary saw, a worn-down table, and a waterlogged bookcase true Wonders. Her story is like a tall glass of cold lemonade and the best spot on the front porch: refreshing, pleasing, and thoroughly enjoyable. I found it bittersweet when I came to the last page of this book. Having to say goodbye to Eben, his trusty dog, Sal, and the folks of Sassafras Springs was akin to leaving home for the first time. But as Eben reminds us, when Columbus and Balboa set off to discover faraway lands, even they knew that it wasn’t “goodbye”, just “see you soon”.
I hope this little gem encourages readers to discover or rediscover the treasure that lies right outside their own doorstep, for sometimes the biggest Wonders are right in our own backyard.
* Book cover image attributed to www.fab.lexile.com
Swim to Me
Betsy Carter (Adult Fiction)
Delores Walker can vividly recall the moment her mother dropped her into the shallow end of a lake. She was just two, but she remembers the water’s temperature, plunging into its depths, and struggling to resurface. It was heaven. Twelve years later, she travels to Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida with her mother and father. It’s 1970 and the mermaids of Weeki Wachee perform a tribute to Apollo 11. They spin, twirl, dive, and glide, and Delores is fascinated and enthralled by these amazing creatures in the water. Now at sixteen, she boards a Greyhound bus to Florida with a suitcase, a handful of silver dollars, a letter from Weeki Wachee, and a dream of being a mermaid.
This book is a loving tribute to those wonderfully glorious quirky, kitschy, and sometimes tacky roadside attractions that are a part of our rich and unique history and culture. I totally immersed myself in this novel and loved reading about these aquatic darlings and their lives both in and out of the tank. Carter ensures a well-rounded story by giving equal attention to Delores; her struggling and self-absorbed mother, Gail; and her absentee and apathetic father, Roy. By offering readers a deeper insight into each of these characters separately, we gain a clearer understanding of their own personal thoughts, feelings, and struggles.
More than a loving wink and nod to days gone by, Swim to Me is a book about endings and new beginnings; about not being defined or confined by your present situation; and about taking what’s given to you and making the absolute most of it.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com
A Little Princess
Frances Hodgson Burnett (Juvenile Fiction)
Sara Crewe is seven and always dreaming and thinking odd things. But ever since arriving in London from India with her father, Captain Ralph Crewe, all she thinks about is “the place”—Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. Her father’s affluence instantly propels Sara to star status within the school, but misfortune soon causes her to be penniless and at the mercy of jealous students, spiteful cooks, and a vindictive and cold-hearted headmistress. Once an heiress and now a pauper, Sara relies on the friendship of a young servant, two foolish schoolgirls, and a rather amicable rat to help her cope with her new station in life.
Burnett delivers a charming and tender Cinderella-like story where our heroine is suddenly ripped from a life of comfort, joy, and love and thrown into a merciless world of coldness, hunger, and cruelty. Unlike Cinderella, Sara is merely a child and the pain and suffering inflicted upon her is especially difficult to bear. It also earns her tormentor, Miss Minchin, a dubious place amongst literature’s most despised and detested villains.
With A Little Princess, Burnett gives us a story about humility, grace, courage, hope, generosity, and kindness. She also gives us a girl who is a beloved daughter, a show pupil, an adopted mother, a storyteller, a benefactor, a scullery maid, and a friend. But most of all, Sara Crewe is, and always will be in the hearts of readers, a little princess.
* Book cover image attributed to www.tvtropes.org
Hattie Big Sky
Kirby Larson (Young Adult Fiction)
Hattie Inez Brooks refers to herself as Hattie Here-and-There. Orphaned before she had lost her baby teeth, she spends her years being shuffled here and there amongst various relatives’ homes. At 16, everything changes when she is left 320 acres and a house in Montana by her deceased mother’s brother, Uncle Chester. With the only thing to look forward to in Arlington, Iowa is a job at a boardinghouse, Hattie writes back, “I’ll come.” But to make her uncle’s claim her own, she has to cultivate 40 acres and lay 480 rods of fence…and she has less than a year to do it. With a strong faith and help from neighbors, can Hattie make her deepest wish a reality—to find a place to belong.
Hattie Big Sky is based on the life of Larson’s great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who herself had homesteaded as a young woman in eastern Montana. Because most of the story takes place in 1918, we see more references to automobiles than covered wagons. The United States was also embroiled in World War I and many German-born immigrants were subjected to a litany of anti-German persecution. Larson weaves all of these facts, along with the countless struggles faced by homesteaders, into a beautifully-told story of hardship, bravery, and old-fashioned grit.
Hattie is pleasantly surprised to find that a paper in Iowa is willing to pay her a monthly fee for her homesteading stories. In one such submission, she writes, “…the lesson this life has planted in my heart pertain more to caring than to crops, more to Golden Rule than gold, more to the proper choice than to popular choice.” Hattie’s lesson is one we should all strive to implant upon our own heart.
* Book cover image attributed to www.scholastic.com
T. Greenwood (Adult Fiction)
“Do not ask me for haunted. Do not ever ask me for haunted, because I will give you haunted and you will never be the same.”
Effie Greer is living a fugitive life. When you are a fugitive, you don’t sign leases, you don’t bother unpacking, and you don’t make any friends. But after three years, she finally feels safe enough to return home to Lake Gormlaith, Vermont. There, she refurbishes her grandmother’s lake house, reconnects with an old school friend, and develops an interest in a mysterious and kind artist. Only time will tell if Effie can truly leave the past behind and begin anew.
Breathing Water jumps from the years 1991, 1994, and 1987 and deals with issues such as domestic violence and substance abuse. Despite its strong and promising beginning, the story just seems to aimlessly float along with no real purpose or direction. At times, the text seems overly flowery (“The rust-gold-orange-purple of the woods behind him blurred through the spray of the hose…”) and the transitions between time periods are awkward and require the reader a few moments to continually readjust. Also, I found the main character to be a bit contradictory. As a survivor of abuse, she is prone to keeping secrets although she eventually finds great relief and peace once she finally divulges her abusive past to friends and family. Despite this, she finds it absolutely reasonable to keep secrets from her new love interest. So, we are led to assume that some secrets are acceptable and absolution is purely discretionary.
All in all, not the worst novel I’ve ever read, but it was lacking on several fronts: the characters were somewhat flat, the plot was thin, and finally reaching the end of the book was akin to treading water—there’s just not that much to hold onto.
* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Kate DiCamillo (Juvenile Fiction)
“Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely out of china.”
Edward Tulane is almost three feet tall (from the tip of his ears to the tip of his feet) and is the beloved companion of ten-year old Abilene Tulane. A birthday present to Abilene from her grandmother Pellegrina, Edward thinks of himself as a rather fine specimen. He adores his fancy outfits and very much prefers not to think of unpleasant thoughts. But one day, something rather unpleasant does occur and that, I’m afraid to say, leads to only more unpleasantness. You see, Edward is a rabbit who only truly cares about himself, but all that is about to change very, very soon.
DiCamillo is one of the most talented and gifted children’s authors of this generation. Her characters reach deep into your soul and her stories leave an indelible mark on your heart. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is perhaps my favorite DiCamillo book. It’s a story about learning to love and being loved. It’s about belonging to a family and finding your way home. Edward never knew about love, but then he opened his ears and began to listen. When he listened, he opened his mind and began to care. When he cared, he opened his heart and began to love…and that changed everything.
Abilene’s grandmother once asked her, “How can a story end happily if there is no love?” DiCamillo gives us an enchanting and heartwarming story that brims with love which, in turn, promises readers a very happy ending. Open this book, open your heart, and prepare yourself for an amazing and unforgettable journey with a china rabbit named Edward.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com
The Little Paris Bookshop
Nina George (Adult Fiction)
“As the grandmother, mother and girl said their good-byes and went on their way, Perdu reflected that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They look after people.”
From a single conversation, Monsieur Perdu can tell you what you need and what your soul lacks. His father calls it transperception, the ability to see and hear through most people’s camouflage and detect all the things they worry and dream about. He can transperceive just about anybody…except himself. He spends his days operating a moored book barge called Literary Apothecary, where he prescribes books like medication to those who lack or seek confidence, hope, faith, or love. His seemingly tranquil life is suddenly made turbulent when an unopened, twenty-year old letter, written by his ex-lover, is discovered. Perdu suddenly finds himself on a journey to discover an author’s real identity, to seek forgiveness, and to find peace.
Like a rusty barge moored in port for a little too long, this book had a promising start, but then just sputtered and gasped along until the end of the book. The details and descriptions that George provides of the ports along Paris and of the French countryside are vivid and meticulous; however, the story stalls mid-way through and just never seems to regain steam. Reading this book was more like a job to finish rather than a journey to be enjoyed. The Little Paris Bookshop was marketed as “a love letter to books”, but to readers, it feels more like a Dear John letter as we are left feeling forlorn and rather disappointed.
* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com
The Mostly True Story of Jack
Kelly Barnhill (Juvenile Fantasy)
In the town of Hazelwood, Iowa, everything is neat and quiet and predictable. Everything, that is, except the deep purple house with its bright green door that sits on the edge of town. It belongs to Clive and Mabel Fitzpatrick (they’re kooks) and will soon be home to their nephew Jack (he’s a nobody). But something is happening in the town of Hazelwood. Something is different. There’s a buzzing sound that you can hear in the air and feel on the ground. And there is a sweet smell all about. Frankie Schumacher is the first to notice it, but he’s usually the first to know most things. What Frankie doesn’t know is that this newcomer, a boy named Jack, is at the center of everything strange, weird, and disturbing that is happening…again.
Barnhill gives us a story that is full of magic, bravery, and friendship. The plot gets a little confusing as the reader is provided cryptic clues through old diary entries and postings by Jack’s uncle—both contained in The Secret History of Hazelwood—in order to piece together the bizarre events not only occurring in the Fitzpatrick home, but also around town. Also, the premise of the story seems a little faulty since we are led to believe that Jack’s character feels “invisible”; however, throughout the book and especially near the end, we see that he is actually being forgotten and not just simply ignored. This feeling is actually more appropriate in conveying a sense of foreboding and trepidation as the action intensifies and Jack begins to realize the truth about the town and himself.
Overall, I liked that the main characters in this book were loyal, fearless, and chose decency over convenience. Whether standing up to bullies or corrupted townspeople, they always erred on the side of right, regardless of the consequences they knew they would eventually face. I do have a slight warning for younger readers or readers that are easily frightened. There are a few creepy parts in this book where kids get sucked into the ground and have their souls taken so just keep this in mind. All in all, The Mostly True Story of Jack is a book about trying to feel comfortable in your own skin, trying to fit in, and most of all, just trying to be true to yourself…or mostly true.
* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Lisa See (Adult Fiction)
Lily Yi was born on the fifth day of the sixth month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign. Her matchmaker took one look at her and knew she was special. In fact, Lily was so special that she was given a laotong, an “old same”, instead of the traditional sworn sisters that most girls receive. A laotong relationship in Chinese culture is between two girls from different villages who are eternally bound to be kindred sisters and devoted companions. At the age of seven, Lily is matched with a girl from the highly regarded Lu clan. Her name is Snow Flower. For over twenty years, their friendship endures arranged marriages, childbearing, disease, and death. Throughout these events, the two write to one another in a secret women’s language—nu shu—on the folds of a fan. One day, Lily receives a message from Snow Flower that threatens to tear apart their bond, although it is said that not even death itself can sever a laotong.
See not only gives us an extraordinary novel, but also an informative and unforgettable glimpse into Chinese culture and the lives of women in the early part of the 19th century. We read how women are kept separated and isolated from outside life. Women hidden away within the walls of their upstairs women’s chambers where they spend their days cooking, sewing, and praying for sons—their only measure of worth. See also describes the unimaginably cruel and painful practice of footbinding. This tradition begins with girls at age six and See’s description of the binding process is unmerciful in its details. The suffering these young girls endure is truly horrific and beyond human comprehension and through the author’s masterful storytelling, we find ourselves experiencing their pain and agony alongside them. (Thankfully, this practice was outlawed in 1912.)
See gives her readers a beautifully told story of devotion, sacrifice, regret, love, and forgiveness. Lily and Snow Flower are strong, intelligent, and fearless women willing to break long-honored cultural barriers in order to remain together. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a mesmerizing and heartbreaking novel whose story unfolds as effortlessly as the fan that Lily and Snow Flower share.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com