Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (J)

Miss Hickory

Miss Hickory

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (Juvenile Fiction)

Miss Hickory had an apple-wood twig body, hickory nut head, and wore a rather smart checked gingham dress.  She lived a fine and comfortable life under the lilac bush in a corncob house.  Before winter set in, Great-Granny Brown would bring Miss Hickory’s house (and her along with it) into the Old Place and set both on the windowsill to pass the time amiably until springtime.  But this year, Crow had brought some terrible news.  It seems that Great-Granny Brown has closed up the Old Place for the winter and has decided to spend the winter in Boston in some place called the Women’s City Club.  Abandoned, dismayed, and soon-to-be evicted, what is Miss Hickory to do?  Leave it to her old friend Crow to not only offer up a solution, but an adventure to boot!

1947 Newbery Medal Winner, Miss Hickory is NOT to be confused with some run-of-the-mill children’s story.  Oh no!  For author Carolyn Sherwin Bailey advises her readers at the beginning of her story that all of her characters—from Miss Hickory to Crow to Squirrel and even Hen-Pheasant—are very much real and alive (save for one, but I don’t wish to spoil the story).  Bailey gives us a wonderful adventure tale that centers around one very prissy, self-centered, judgmental, and rather pretentious Miss Hickory.  We follow her seasonal exploits in the orchard that sits beside the Old Place.  Readers get to meet many colorful characters such as fearful Ground Hog, spoiled Chipmunk, and worldly Wild-Heifer.  As Miss Hickory encounters each of these wonderful creatures, she grows a bit in experience, character, and self-actualization.

Miss Hickory is a beautifully told story complemented by Ruth Gannett’s exquisite lithographs.  Her drawings give an earthy and rustic feel to a tale celebrating nature and wildlife.  Bailey spent her summers at a home in New Hampshire that adjoined an apple orchard.  Her keen observational skills allow readers to be transported to a world where you can delight in the purple asters, smell the fragrant pine needles, taste the berries and nuts, and feel the crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet.

SPOILER: Although younger readers may find the ending a bit sad, Miss Hickory is truly a celebration of discovering your personal worth and finding your place in the world (adults may have to help them look for this silver lining).  In the end—although Miss Hickory was a bit “hardheaded”—she discovered that home is more than a structure, it’s a sense of belonging.  And although she was a bit of a nut (sorry!), Miss Hickory shows us that is does pay to listen to your heart rather than your head, that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, and—most importantly—that you should always, ALWAYS be nice to squirrels because making them angry would be just plain…nutty.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.discoverbooks.com

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Adult Historical Fiction)

Juliet Ashton is tired of writing under the name of Izzy Bickerstaff and no longer wants to be considered a light-hearted journalist.  She wants to create something meaningful, but has no idea where to find inspiration…until a letter comes.  It’s a kind note from a Mr. Dawsey Adams of St. Martin’s, Guernsey who found her name and address written on the inside front cover of a book written by his favorite author, Charles Lamb.  He asks if she could kindly send him the name and address of other bookshops in London (for there aren’t any left on Guernsey after the war) so that he may acquire more Lamb books?  Through several letters, Juliet begins to learn more about Guernsey and its famed Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and she has questions.  Questions such as how could a pig begin a literary society and what exactly is a potato peel pie?  Perhaps this is the inspiration that Juliet has been looking for?

I admit I was in Heaven while reading this book—a book about people who love books.  What’s not to like?  It also doesn’t hurt that the writing was witty and sharp, the characters were endearingly flawed and humorously relatable, and the story had an equal mix of quirky, sadness, drama, humor, treachery, suspense, and yes, love.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a touching and bittersweet book about the residents of Guernsey during the German occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII.  Through the stories of the island’s residents, as well as a few of the prison camp survivors, we get a glimpse of the toll that the destruction, separation, and isolation had on the human psyche.  We are also given stories of bravery, selflessness, and heroism, which illustrates the strength of the human spirit even during the darkest of times.

What started out as a ruse to prevent dinner guests from being arrested by German soldiers, the literary society ended up showing its members how much power a book possesses.  Books can motivate, educate, inspire, entertain, and transport us to worlds far beyond our borders and imagination.  For the members of the Guernsey literary society, a book turned a fisherman into a Casanova, saved a man from a life of inebriation, allowed a collector to find his faith, and bridged two very unlikely friendships.

I was a little wary when I discovered that this book consisted entirely of letters.  Would it have the same depth and weight of a typical novel?  O me, of little faith.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a descriptive, warm, engaging, and satisfying read that will make you long for village life and allow you to believe in love again.  And while this book reminds us that life is often tragic and history sometimes reveals the worst in humankind, it also shows us how resilient the human spirit is and how expansive our hearts can be when the need arises.

Just as a particular song might come on the radio when you need it most or the perfect meme pops up on your Facebook feed that strikes a certain chord, I believe a book acts in the same capacity.  It finds us—chooses us—and makes us think, challenge, defend, or dream while allowing us to imagine, escape, explore, or be comforted.  The perfect book always seems to find us at just the right time and it changes us somehow.  And when it does, WE then become the conduit and pass it along to someone in need of a good laugh, cry, or shriek.  Books are indeed powerful.  As Juliet wrote in one of her letters to Dawsey, “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.  How delightful if that were true.”  Maybe as delightful as a potato peel pie?  I’ll let you decide.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (J Historical Fiction)

Bronze and Sunflower

Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Sunflower was lonely.  Her father was a revered sculptor in the city, but he—like so many others—had been sent to work at the Cadre School and now Sunflower has very little to do all day.  To pass the time, she goes down to the river and looks to the other side at the village called Damaidi.  In Damaidi, there is life, there is activity, and most of all, there are children.  She dreams of what it might be like to go over there and play and explore.  Then one day, Sunflower’s dad tragically drowns in the river and she is accepted into the home of Damaidi’s poorest family.  There she meets Baba, Mama, grandmother Nainai, and Bronze, their mute son.  Suddenly, Sunflower is a daughter, a granddaughter, and a sister and life amongst these poor people was about to make her richer than she could ever imagine.

Translated from Mandarin by Helen Wang, Bronze and Sunflower is a masterpiece in storytelling.  It tells the story of a family and a village caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Wenxuan doesn’t make this period in history the center of his story, but instead chooses to keep it as a backdrop.  He instead focuses on the unique and touching bond between Bronze and Sunflower and the family’s struggle to survive floods, locusts, famine, and dishonor.  It’s a tale replete with villains and heroes, sadness and joy, and despair and hope.  Wenxuan effortlessly weaves a tale showing us that life isn’t fair, that justice is often elusive, and that those in power—for better or worse—wield a mighty influence.  But he also shows us the importance of family, the power of redemption, and the value of integrity.  It’s a story absolutely brimming with moral lessons and human values and should be devoured by readers of all ages.

The only fault I had with this book is its ending.  It’s vague (I re-read it several times to make sure I didn’t miss any subtle clue or hidden meaning) and puts the burden on the reader to determine what happened.  I’m not a fan of this kind of ambiguous ending, but the overall story isn’t dependent upon it and so its vagueness shouldn’t serve as a detraction from an otherwise engaging and captivating tale that was an absolute joy to read and experience.

Without giving away any spoilers, the saddest part of the story—for me—was the eventuality of Bronze and Sunflower growing up…as children tend to do.  The head of the village of Damaidi stated as much when he met with Baba and Mama and said, “Time’s moving on.”  Simple words that remind us how fleeting and fragile time is and that everything should be cherished and savored for nothing is certain or guaranteed.  With the sudden loss of her father, Sunflower understood the unpredictability of life and the value that came with belonging.  Despite her poverty, Sunflower considered herself wealthy beyond measure because she was part of a family and that family loved her very much.  Actor, author, and activist Michael J. Fox once said, “Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.”  In that respect, Sunflower had everything and perhaps that made her the richest person in all of Damaidi.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.abebooks.com

Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill

A. Manette Ansay (Adult Fiction)

There are many ways to describe Ellen Grier: wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, caregiver, teacher.  All of these different roles and yet Ellen still feels incomplete…invisible almost.  She had been happy in Illinois in their rented house, but after her husband lost his job, she and her family are back in their hometown of Holly’s Field, Wisconsin and living with her in-laws at 512 Vinegar Hill—a harsh, loveless, and cold home filled with secrets.  She wants to be happy, but finds herself drowning under a sea of hopelessness and despair.  Can Ellen save herself and the ones she loves before Vinegar Hill consumes them all?

Vinegar Hill is an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  I’ve read several of her recommendations and often found them to be “hit” or “miss”.  This book is clearly a “miss”.  On the back cover, a review from Washington Post Book World calls it “Sweet, tender, and chilling.”  After reading this and several other critics’ comments printed on the book, I’m wondering if I actually read the same novel that they did.  Sweet?  Tender?  Vinegar Hill is the type of book that would make Edgar Allan Poe pause and say, “Wow!  Now THAT’S dark!”  This is a depressing, depraved, and disturbing story devoid of purpose, value, or meaning.  We’re introduced to several generations of individuals whose intolerance, callousness, cruelty, meanness and spite are clearly hereditary.  It’s an endless cycle of verbal and physical abuse with a skosh of religious hallucinations and psychological delusions thrown in for interest.  Ellen’s daughter, Amy, “buries” her “dead” dolls in shoeboxes; her husband, James, sees his children as the personification of Halloween with their skeletal hands and sunken ghostly eyes; and her elderly and bitter mother-in-law, Mary-Margaret, has dreams of her deceased twin infants growing back inside of her.  THIS is sweet and tender?  The Chicago Tribune even called Vinegar Hill “one of the year’s best books.”  I’m absolutely speechless.  I found the characters unpleasant and unsympathetic, religious judgements are frivolously tossed out as if they were beads at Mardi Gras, intelligence is scorned and vilified, and helplessness is encouraged and celebrated.

When Ellen sought advice from her fellow co-worker, she was told, “No one gets used to anything, they just get numb.”  After a while, with the constant derisions and disparagements, I too became numb and found myself eagerly counting down the pages until I could finally close the covers of this book and walk—or actually run—away from Vinegar Hill and all of its inhabitants…never to look back again.

Rating: 2/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman (J)

Fortunately the Milk

Fortunately, the Milk   

Neil Gaiman (Juvenile Fiction)

Mom was off to a conference so Dad was in charge.  She had given him loads to remember, but the most important of all was, “Oh, and we’re almost out of milk.  You’ll need to pick some up.”  You couldn’t very well put orange juice on your Toastios.  Or pickle juice.  Or mayonnaise or ketchup.  So Dad went to the corner store for milk (and NOT the fat-free kind because it tastes like water!!!).  After he returned after being gone an unusually long time, he plopped down the milk and told his two children the most unbelievable story they had ever heard.  A story about aliens and dinosaurs and time travel and pirates and ponies and vampires and…  Well, perhaps it’s best if you were to hear it from Dad himself because you wouldn’t believe it if I were to tell it.

From the imagination that is uniquely Neil Gaiman, Fortunately, the Milk is a story filled with charm, wit, and humor.  It’s a quick read that would make for a wonderfully entertaining bedtime story.  Bursting with unforgettable characters (a time-travelling stegosaurus inventor anyone?) and an action-packed race through time (literally), Gaiman gives us a tale where the universe sits precariously on the shoulders of a dad simply trying to get back home with a bottle of milk.

Perhaps the real star of this book is Skottie Young’s outrageously fantastic illustrations.  His pen-and-ink drawings are what you might get if you were to give Tim Burton’s brain a pen and a piece of paper.  They are as whimsical, outlandish, and over-the-top delightful as Gaiman’s story and both combine to give young readers an epic journey through space, time, and around the block to the corner grocer.

So whether you’re into science fiction, fantasy, comedy, or just enjoy reading about boogers and snot (those aliens are really quite disgusting), you’re sure to enjoy this little gem of a book.  Even if you do enjoy pickle juice with your Toastios…weirdo.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood  

Ruth Ware (Adult Fiction)

Twenty-six-year-old crime writer Leonora “Nora” Shaw lives alone…and she loves it.  When you’re alone, you’re in control and she likes it that way.  So when she gets an e-mail from a stranger inviting her to a bachelorette party for Clare Cavendish, Nora’s world unexpectedly is turned upside down.  She hasn’t spoken to Clare in ten years so the invitation is obviously unsettling.  Why her?  Why now?  But it’s only for the weekend and perhaps it would be nice to see Clare again.  After all, they had been best friends.  But since she’s arrived at the “glass house” in the middle of the woods, Nora only seems to be accumulating more questions than answers, and when you’re in a dark, dark wood, it’s so very hard to see any light of what is real or true.

I admit that I am sometimes influenced by the marketing blurbs that appear on the front and back covers of a book.  Some excerpts for In a Dark, Dark Wood include “Prepared to be scared” or “Read it…with all the lights on” or “An unsettling thriller”.  I have found, much to my disappointment, that all of these are a far cry from what you are actually given.  It’s certainly not the fault of Ware that expectations are set so incredibly high, but when you have Reese Witherspoon on the cover of your book promising a frightfest of epic proportions (she’s the one who warns readers to prepare for a scare), I have to wonder if my fear-o-meter is just insanely high or if Ms. Witherspoon is just a little scaredy-cat.

Without pitting Ruth Ware against Ruth Ware, I did find her second novel, The Woman in Cabin 10, to be a more satisfying and suspenseful read with the twist ending that I thought In a Dark, Dark, Wood would have.  To be fair, this book did have a lot of energy and some unexpected moments, but the end really did just fall apart.  I found it to be a bit predictable largely due to the generous amounts of clues that the author provides throughout the book.  Also, our heroine and narrator, Nora (who goes by several names), makes some really dim decisions and –for her being such an accomplished crime author—doesn’t seem able to think logically or rationally when it would benefit her the most.  Lastly, there are several gaping plot holes (we’re left questioning several characters’ intentions and motivations) and we really have to suspend any sense of logic in order to digest the series of events that happen at the end of the book.

For a quick read that you can read at night, by yourself, during a storm, in a spooky house, feel free to pick up In a Dark, Dark, Wood.  For a suspenseful and thrilling book that will leave you guessing until the end, I invite you to leave the wood and go toward the water with Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10—unless you’re Reese Witherspoon and then you should definitely stay away…or at least turn on the lights.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World by Mary Losure (J NF)

The Fairy Ring

The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World

Mary Losure (Juvenile Non-Fiction)

Elsie loved a good laugh, she loved to paint, and she didn’t like being teased.  Needless to say, when her young cousin, Frances, was being mocked by her family after she told them that she had seen fairies down by the stream, well it was enough to make Elsie’s blood boil.  But when they had the audacity to begin teasing HER, that simply was the last straw!  Elsie thought up a clever plan to show the adults that fairies were in fact real and she would do so by offering up photographic evidence.  Little did Elsie know at the time that her fairy photos would someday attract the attention of someone who really did believe in spirits and fairies.  Someone who her own father admired and adored.  Someone by the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Author Mary Losure said that her idea for The Fairy Ring came after a visit to an independent bookstore in Minnesota.  There she came across The Coming of Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—a book built around the photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths and the implications behind their much-believed authenticity.  Frances wrote her own book, Reflections on the Cottingley Fairies, a memoir that was completed by her daughter, Christine Lynch, after her death.  Looking at the original photos now, people would obviously see them as the forgeries they were.  But back in 1917, a time when the news cycle was dominated by the First World War, the demand for legitimacy may not have been on the forefront of anyone’s mind.

It is remarkable how two girls—ages 15 and 9—were able to pull off what would later be known as one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century.  What is even more astonishing was their ability to wholeheartedly ensnare one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  How could one of the greatest authors of his time, and a medical doctor to boot, have been so gullible?  Doyle was a scientific man, but he was also spiritual and the death of his son, Kinglsey, in 1918 caused him to fully embrace spiritualism and the idea of spirits and otherworldly beings.  With that in mind, it’s no wonder why in mid-1919, when the Cottingley fairy photos were made public, that Doyle was quick to embrace the idea that fairies were indeed real, thus bringing some semblance of validation and comfort to a still grieving father.

Elsie and Frances’s story is as fascinating as it is unbelievable.  Remarkably, both women kept their secret long enough so that many reputations, including that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were kept intact and untarnished.  It was a hoax that would transcend all others and spawned simply because one talented and easily offended teenager simply didn’t like being teased.  While Elsie eventually admitted to revealing the truth, Frances—even up to her death—never wavered from her belief in fairies.  Even Sherlock Holmes may have been inclined to believe in the Cottingley fairies for he once said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  Are fairies impossible?  I, for one, would like to believe that fairies exist, for in the grand scheme of things, what harm would there be really to believe otherwise?

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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