The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County 

Tiffany Baker (Adult Fiction)

The day I laid Robert Morgan to rest was remarkable for two reasons.  First, even though it was August, the sky overhead was as rough and cold as a January lake; and second, it was the day I started to shrink.

Truly Plaice was destined to be a big girl.  During her mother’s pregnancy, the town began to take bets as to what her final weight would be upon delivery.  Turns out, nobody in that town won.  No one came close.  Her school teacher called her a “little giant” and Truly became known for her massive size and build.  Where her sister, Serena Jane, was wispy and beautiful, Truly countered with her girth and homeliness.  But with so many things, Truly simply accepted this genetic disparity as fact and actually said the difference between the two was quite easy, “The reason the two of us were as opposite as sewage and spring water, I thought, was that pretty can’t exist without ugly.”  So, through her own eyes, Truly shares her story of wickedness and witchcraft, of poverty and prosperity, of life and death, and of a very big woman in a very small town.

Throughout this book, I wasn’t sure whether to feel pity or pride for Truly.  Here is a woman who has wholly resigned herself to her situation and although she feels the occasional stab of pity, jealousy, or regret, her unconditional surrender to her circumstances is both admirable and heartbreaking.  Her friend Amelia may have summed up Truly’s attitude perfectly one day when they were both walking home from school, “Things are what they are.  You can’t change them.”  Perhaps Truly realized this early on in life and found that she’d be much happier by choosing resignation over resistance.

Tiffany Baker does a nice job at keeping her story entertaining and engrossing by throwing in several plot turns and twists.  Although there is a lot going on with multiple characters and their individual story lines, Truly proves to be a capable storyteller and manages to keep everything orderly and fluid.  However, despite an engaging story and a unique main character, there was a big plot hole that kept my rating at a four versus a five.  I found that Truly’s need for a cure and her want of one were at constant odds.  The reasons she stated for not pursuing treatment are legitimate to her circumstances at the time save one…money.  You can’t claim poverty as an excuse when you constantly remind the reader that you have a suitcase full of money hidden under your bed.  This was clearly frustrating for me, but not enough to override the valuable lessons contained within The Little Giant of Aberdeen County:  love the skin you’re in, be courageous in accepting that which you cannot change, and never think that you are so full that there is not enough room to let anyone else in.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray (J)

Adam of the Road

Adam of the Road

Elizabeth Janet Gray (Juvenile Fiction)

Three things gave Adam Quartermayne comfort: his harp, his friend Perkin, and his dog Nick.  But for five months now, all Adam truly cared about was his father finally coming to take him out of school.  “Today he’s coming.  I know it!”, Adam would find himself saying over and over again.  But his father was Roger the Minstrel, and the open road was his home.  Roger will come for him and when he did, together with their harp and viol, they would travel the countryside—entertaining people with their songs and stories.  But life is unpredictable and just when Nick had settled into the life he had always dreamed of fate comes along and changes everything.

Elizabeth Janet Gray takes young readers to late thirteenth-century England—a time of Welsh revolt and a period when England’s population boomed and towns and trade expanded.  Best of all, it was a time for minstrels and what an important commodity they were.  As Gray writes, “When a book cost more than a horse and few could read, minstrels’ tales were almost the only entertainment.  Minstrels brought news, too; they told what was going on in the next town, and what was happening in London, and where the king was.”  Gray transports her readers to a time filled with wine (the hot spiced wine is particularly pleasant), women (Jill Ferryman was especially goodhearted and kind), and song.  Lots and lots of song! She gives us an adventure for the ages filled with robbers, thieves, narrow escapes, dastardly deeds, and daring-dos.

At the heart of this book is eleven-year old Adam, whose solid moral center, resilience, loyalty, bravery, and kindness make him the ideal protagonist.  He understands that stealing food—regardless of the degree of hunger—is wrong and that showing genuine appreciation for an otherwise undesirable gift is an admirable trait.  More importantly, he shows us the value of faith and family.  Time and time again, the reader is reminded that a minstrel’s home is the open road.  As Roger once said to Adam, “A road’s a kind of holy thing.  It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together.  And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”  But I think in the end, Adam may have been more in agreement with the Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder (or just Pliny if you were a close chum).  For it was Pliny who gave us the beloved saying, “Home is where the heart is” and Adam’s heart was firmly placed within a master minstrel and a red spaniel with long silky ears.  Perhaps Pliny would have made for a rather good minstrel?

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.christianbook.com

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The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August

The Dry Grass of August 

Anna Jean Mayhew (Adult Fiction)

In August of 1954, we took our first trip without Daddy, and Stell got to use the driver’s license she’d had such a fit about.  It was just a little card saying she was Estelle Annette Watts, that she was white, with hazel eyes and brown hair.  But her having a license made that trip different from any others, because if she hadn’t had it, we never would have been stuck in Sally’s Motel Park in Claxton, Georgia, where we went to buy fruitcakes and had a wreck instead.  And Mary would still be with us.

It’s 1954 and Jubie Watts, her mother, brother, sisters, and their maid, Mary, are embarking on the ultimate road trip from Charlotte, North Carolina to Florida.  They’re traveling without father and there’s talk of the Klan in Georgia.  “We’ll be fine,” Mama assured.  She needed this trip and nothing was going to change her mind.  So with that final word, the six of them headed out in the family’s Packard for a journey that would have unforeseeable impacts on them all.

Several reviewers noted that fans of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help (I read it and count myself as a fan) would also enjoy this book.  “A must-read,” one went so far as saying.  But other than the story being set in the South during segregation, the parallels stop there.  Mayhew’s story does deal with the atrocities of racial and social injustice, but—through the Watts family—she also delves into the darkness of infidelity, alcoholism, and physical abuse.  This is a story about both a country and a family being torn apart from the inside out.  The ugliness of racial disparity and the effects of substance abuse are on full display and is authentic in their depiction and raw in their detail.  What’s perhaps most disturbing is the fact that in this place and time in American history, these behaviors were indeed the status quo and viewed as socially acceptable.

In the back of the book, there is an author Q&A section where Mayhew is asked if her novel is young adult fiction given that her protagonist is thirteen years old.  Mayhew answers, “My novel is literary fiction; however, I hope young adults will read it, because it’s set in a time long before their lives and can give them a look into history through the eyes of someone of their age.”  I searched Penguin Teen for iconic YA heroines and pulled up such descriptions as “sharpshooter, ancient beast tamer”, “futuristic Resistance fighter”, “post-apocalyptic survivor”, “female gladiator”, and “dress-wearing demon destroyer”.  After reading The Dry Grass of August, it was refreshing to see just an ordinary young girl standing up for principles she feels are worth defending and standing beside people she feels are worth protecting.  Jubie Watts is such a person and a heroine that any reader—young or old—can learn a thing or two from.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Black Stallion by Walter Farley (J)

The Black Stallion

The Black Stallion

Walter Farley (Juvenile Fiction)

The tramp steamer Drake—loaded with coffee, rice, tea, oil seeds, and jute—was pushing its way from India and heading to New York City.  Aboard was young Alexander (Alec) Ramsay, who had just spent two months in India with his uncle.  Also on board was a wild black stallion picked up in an Arabian port.  Alec knew enough about horses to be intrigued by the magnificent beast, but also wary.  This was not an animal to be underestimated.  But one night, the Drake encountered a fierce storm which would ultimately spare only two passengers:  Alec and the stallion whom he called “the Black”.  Can these two possibly form an alliance in order to survive their harsh and uninhabited island home?

The Black Stallion, published in 1941, is the first of twenty books in The Black Stallion series written by Walter Farley.  The twenty-first book, The Young Black Stallion, was co-authored with Farley’s son, Steven, and published shortly after the author’s death.  At the time of the book’s publication, the news was dominated by the war in Europe and so this book not only served as a respite from the ensuing turmoil, but was also a reminder of the good still inherent in humans.  The Black Stallion is a wonderful story about the importance of trust, loyalty, and devotion to each other during the most trying of circumstances.  Today’s young readers may find this story’s text to be a bit hokey given its multiple uses of the words “gee” and “swell”, but this book is an excellent example of how far someone can go when they not only have faith in themselves, but they have the unified support of those closest to them.  Alec is surrounded by loving and encouraging adults who do not treat him as an idealistic child, but rather as a competent and trustworthy peer.  Modern juvenile fiction often pits the young protagonist against skeptical parents, jealous schoolmates, or crotchety neighbors—anything that presents an obstacle that our young hero or heroine must overcome.  The Black Stallion instead focuses on positive relationships and the rewards that come with perseverance and good old-fashioned hard work.

The unlikely relationship between Alec and the Black garnered much awe and attention from all who witnessed it.  One such observation came from a ship’s captain and his first-mate, Pat.  After the captain marveled at how gentle the Black was in the presence of Alec, Pat replied, “Yes, sir,” he said, “one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.  I wonder where it’ll take them?”  Lucky for us, it took them on many, many unforgettable adventures that would span twenty-one books and an incredible forty-eight years.  Enjoy.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Bluefish by Pat Schmatz (YA)

Bluefish

Bluefish

Pat Schmatz (Young Adult Fiction)

“One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.”  Might as well be, “One fish, two fish, Travis is a stupid fish.”  At least that’s what they all say…well, what one person says, but he is a VERY influential person.  Travis Roberts is the new kid in the eighth grade.  The only thing keeping him in school was his dog, Rosco, and now that he’s gone, what’s the point?  He’ll always be stupid.  He’ll always be a bluefish.  But then Travis meets Vida (her public calls her “Velveeta”) and Bradley Whistler (who is THE smartest kid EVER) and Mr. McQueen, his reading teacher.  Up until this point, everything that Travis cared about was gone.  Maybe now he has a reason to begin caring again…even if he is just a bluefish.

Pat Schmatz serves up an awkwardly accurate and often humorous portrayal of adolescence through three flawed and endearing misfits—all longing to fit in and wanting to be a part of something bigger than themselves.  Our three protagonists are no longer a child and not quite an adult, and Bluefish shows us the mask each wears to cover up their insecurities and shortcomings.  From the brainiac to the class clown to the strong, silent type, Schmatz successfully encapsulates the complicated world of teenagers and the tangled and convoluted roadmap that directs their everyday lives and dictates their emotions.

Bluefish is more than a story of friendship and middle school survival, it’s a story of how one person has the power to change the very course of our life:  a kid who finds and hands back your stolen shoe; a girl who invites you to sit with her at lunch; or a teacher who volunteers his or her time to tutor you before school.  Thank you, Ms. Schmatz, for reminding us of the importance of not giving up on our friends, and—more importantly—not giving up on ourselves.  You have shown us that being a bluefish really isn’t so bad and can actually be a rather remarkable thing after all.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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The Wishing Trees by John Shors

The Wishing Trees

The Wishing Trees  

John Shors (Adult Fiction)

Kate McCray died ten months ago, but her absence remains as fresh and painful for her husband, Ian, and their ten-year-old daughter, Mattie as the day she slipped away from them.  Upon her death, Kate leaves a letter for Ian expressing her dying wish: “Be happy.  Learn to laugh again.  To joke.  To wrestle together like you once did.  Learn to be free again.”  To achieve these things, Kate wants Ian to take Mattie on the trip the two of them intended to make to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary.  A trip across Asia that would allow Mattie to experience what her parents once shared in so many diverse and wondrous countries: Japan, Nepal, Thailand, India, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.  But can Ian do it?  Can he revisit a past full of memories of his wife in order to forge a future without her?

John Shors delivers a touching and bittersweet story of a husband and daughter embarking on a journey of self-discovery, healing, and enlightenment.  Although deceased, Kate remains a prominent presence and central figure throughout the story.  She has left handwritten notes inside twelve film canisters—six each for Ian and Mattie—which are to be opened upon the pair’s arrival in each country.  Kate’s words of love and encouragement are a constant reminder of the tender and altruistic person so tragically torn from our main characters.  Her careful planning of this trip, despite her weakened state, and her desire for her family to move on without her is heartbreaking in its selflessness and hopeful in its intent.  What’s most striking is Kate’s constant encouragement for her loved ones to make a positive difference in the world.  In one of her letters to Mattie, Kate writes of Buddha, “Do you know what Buddha says about happiness?  He said, ‘Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Happiness never decreases by being shared.’”  With each canister that is opened and with each note that is read, we can easily understand how indomitable a task it is for Ian and Mattie to emotionally recover from their loss.

The Wishing Trees is a beautifully written love letter to anyone who has ever lost a love and hungers for a sign—any sign—that they’re still with us.  That they still see us.  That they still remember us.   It’s also a story about the power of kindness and the extraordinary healing powers in doing good.  Numerous books have been written on research connecting helping others to health benefits or, simply stated, doing good is good for you.  Perhaps Kate knew this all the time or perhaps she remembered an Indian saying during her travels, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.  Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Return to the Willows by Jacqueline Kelly (J)

Return to the Willows

Return to the Willows     

Jacqueline Kelly (Juvenile Fiction)

The Mole and Water Rat drifted along the River in a tiny blue-and-white rowboat.  The current gurgled and chuckled, delighted with its comrades for the day.  The sun smiled down upon our heroes and gladdened their hearts; the lightest of zephyrs ruffled their fur.  There was not a hawk in the sky, and even the dark fringe of the Wild Wood glowering in the distance could not cast a pall upon the shining hour.

This first paragraph sets the stage for a wonderful and, dare I say, epic tale that awaits our wonderful friends Rat, Mole, Toad, and Badger.  If you are a lover of our friends’ original exploits in The Wind in the Willows, then rest assured this tale contains just as much mayhem, mishaps, and mischief to keep your heart quite full and content.  Although we have to once again contend with those dreaded weasels and stoats, we are treated to several new friends including a nephew, a best friend, and a wonderfully clever and brave love interest for one of our deserving heroes.  As Rat well knows, the current is a fickle friend and you never know where you might be led, but with our loyal four friends by our side, we know that we are in for quite a wild ride.

When I first spotted this book on the library shelf, I must admit that my first reaction was, “How DARE she!  I mean the GALL!”  Honestly, you simply don’t go fussing with Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale all willy-nilly and higgledy-piggledy.  Well, do you?  But after reading the opening, I knew our friends were in very safe and capable hands.  Kelly stays remarkably faithful to Grahame’s writing style, use of words and phrases, and our beloved characters and their stories.  The added footnotes and chapter introductions were clever and amusing and will help young readers understand the many English references found throughout the story.  For example, Footnote #60 reads, “In England, the wedding reception is called the wedding breakfast, even if it’s held in the afternoon.  Yes, I know that’s odd.”

Return to the Willows can be read as a standalone, but it’s best read after the first has been properly savored and enjoyed.  There are many references to the original that Kelly tries to provide as much background as possible for newcomers, but having a familiarity with our heroes and their past exploits will provide a wholly more satisfying adventure.  Forgive me, Ms. Kelly, for doubting you and please accept my humblest apologies and sincere gratitude for breathing new life into Rat, Toad, Mole, and Badger.  You have treated them with the care, dignity, and grace they all deserve.  Now off we go for the River awaits!

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

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