Current Book Review

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (J Fiction)

The Tiger Rising

Kate DiCamillo (Juvenile Fiction)

He took a breath. He opened his mouth and let the words fall out. “I know where there’s a tiger.” Sistine stood in the drizzly rain and stared at him, her eyes black and fierce. She didn’t say “A real one?” She didn’t say “Are you crazy?” She didn’t say “You’re a big old liar.” She said one word: “Where?” And Rob knew then that he had picked the right person to tell.

Rob Horton was the best no-crier in the world. That was due in large part to his way of not-thinking about things: his mother’s death, the bullies at school, or the continual rash on his legs. He kept those feelings, along with his no-wish things, locked up tight in a suitcase. As his father always reminded him, crying, worrying or wishing won’t change a thing. So Rob really wasn’t sure what to think when he found a caged tiger behind the old Beauchamp gas station building one day. He also wasn’t sure what to think about that new girl, Sistine, who showed up to school one day in her pink lacy dress since nobody wears pink lacy dresses to school. Suddenly Rob found himself trying to not-think about a whole lot of thinkable things and he wasn’t sure just how much more that old suitcase of his could hold.

It’s tricky being an adult reading a book targeted for younger readers. I feel it’s important to view these stories from their perspective and through their unique lens. With that in mind, I still found myself disappointed with this book. Kate DiCamillo is by far one of my favorite authors and a brilliant storyteller so I was surprised with feeling shortchanged with The Tiger Rising. Her characters seem shallow and could have been developed more fully.  Rob’s father, in particular, could have benefited the most from some kind of backstory. Without understanding his past, he came off as a hot-headed, unfeeling, and violent father who garners little to no sympathy from readers. Also, this story felt forced and rushed—as if DiCamillo is hurrying us across a self-imposed finish line rather than allowing us the opportunity to fully experience the thrill or the energy of the race.  The Tiger Rising feels more like a story pitch or outline rather than a fully fleshed out tale of loss and friendship.  Although the lessons of realizing the importance of grieving and the power of forgiveness are important, they get buried under the weight of too many loose ends that are left to simply dangle in the wind.

One of the most interesting and grounded characters in the book is Willie May, the housekeeper of the hotel that both Rob and his father live and work. Sistine refers to her as a “prophetess” as Willie May is always providing little nuggets of truth and wisdom.  When Willie May saw Rob and Sistine together, she said, “Ain’t that just like God throwing the two of you together?” It is a powerful thing when two seemingly opposite or contrary things find their way to one another and connect. I wish I could have connected with this story, but I feel the best parts of it are still locked away somewhere and is just awaiting the right key to set it free.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Memoir)

The Glass Castle

Jeannette Walls (Memoir)

Jeannette Walls’s earliest memory was when she was just three years old.  She was living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town with her parents and two siblings.  She was on a chair cooking hot dogs.  She was wearing a pretty pink dress bought for her by her grandmother.  And she was on fire.  She was burned so badly that she spent six weeks in the hospital and endured a series of painful skin grafts.  Yet quite unbelievably, things for Jeannette and her family would only go downhill from there.  Always one step ahead of the FBI, gestapo, or Mafia (cleverly disguised as bill collectors), Jeannette’s father Rex skeddadled his family across the desert from one little mining town to the next.  Dealing with bullying, squalor, hunger, a brilliant alcoholic father, and an apathetic artistic mother, this is Jeannette’s remarkable story, candidly and humorously told without fear or favor.  This is her early life presented as transparently as the glass castle that her father had always promised to build.

The Glass Castle is one of those stories that if it wasn’t true, you’d scoff at the bizarre storyline and ridiculous lengths the author puts her main characters through.  As I turned page after page, the one sentence I kept repeating to myself was, “How did this woman ever survive childhood?”  Walls was severely burned at three (and ironically developed an unhealthy fascination with fire after that) and by the time she turned four, she not only survived being thrown out of a moving car, but handedly acquired such “basic skills” as firing her father’s pistol, throwing a knife by the blade, and shooting her mother’s bow and arrow. On top of that, she conducted experiments with toxic and hazardous waste found at the dump, nearly drowned during her swimming “lessons” with her father, hunted for perverts in the dead of night with her brother, escaped several sexual deviants (many times due to her father’s lack of good judgement), and climbed under a fence to pet a cheetah at the zoo.  Growing up, Jeannette clearly had more luck than sense, but her ability to see the good in everything and her unfailing faith in her father often led to heartbreak and disappointment, but clearly made her the tough and grounded adult that she is today.

American game designer and sci-fi novelist Aaron Allston once noted that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that “tragedy is something awful happening to somebody else, while comedy is something awful happening to somebody else.” Indeed, there are parts of Jeannette’s story where you momentarily suspend the idea that this ACTUALLY happened and allow yourself to laugh at the sheer outrageousness of this family’s history (while secretly realizing that your own family and life REALLY aren’t so terribly bad). The only thing that will undeniably make you throw this book against the wall (repeatedly) are Jeannette’s insufferable parents: Rex and Rose Mary Walls.  These are two people who clearly should not have been responsible for the lives of other human beings.  Although their intentions MAY have been unselfish and well-intended, you just can’t get past their self-indulgent, self-destructive, self-righteous, and self-pitying behavior and how their actions caused unnecessary hardship to their situation and to the health and lives of their children.  Kudos to Walls for writing a book that immerses you so totally in her story that you often find yourself yelling at the characters and their misplaced ideologies and lofty platitudes of optimism.  Well done, Ms. Walls…although my wall is still cross.   

In one of Jeannette’s most humiliating moments (and that’s saying something), her mother candidly told her, “Life is a drama full of tragedy and comedy. You should learn to enjoy the comedic episodes a little more.” The life of the Walls family indeed had its share of comedy and tragedy.  Theirs was a family torn apart by alcohol and self-indulgence, but also held together by loyalty and love. Novelist Georgette Heyer wrote, “But it is only in epic tragedies that gloom is unrelieved. In real life tragedy and comedy are so intermingled that when one is most wretched ridiculous things happen to make one laugh in spite of oneself.” After finishing this book, I couldn’t imagine how on earth Jeannette Walls not only survived her childhood, but managed to emerge as a successful, happy, and fulfilled adult.  Attribute it to grit, willpower, or sheer obstinance, but I think Jeannette realized that sometimes Mother does know best and that the only way to navigate the broken promises, failed illusions, and mounting disappointments of life is to simply just laugh.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Good Night, Mr. Tom (YA Historical Fiction)

Good Night, Mr. Tom

Michelle Magorian (YA Historical Fiction)

Thomas Oakley was well into his sixties when the Billeting Officer knocked on his front door.  To the people in his village of Little Weirwold, Thomas was an isolated, bad tempered, and frosty man, but to the officer, he was the perfect fit for this particular evacuee.  Eight-year-old William Beech had come with specific instructions from his mother: either place him with a religious person or near a church.  Thomas Oakley fit the bill perfectly.  So Thomas, a man withdrawn by choice and grief, and William, a boy withdrawn by abuse and neglect, found themselves together and slowly healing in each other’s company.  But when Thomas loses touch with William after being summoned back to live with his mother, Thomas embarks on a journey to find the young boy who had become like a son to him.

I always hold out hope that books for young adults that have important themes may somehow find a way into the hands of younger readers.  I thought this might be possible with Good Night, Mr. Tom.  Although it carried warnings of child abuse, war, and death, the first part of the book was rather benign and contained mild implications of these subjects: the blacked-out windows, bruises and sores on William’s body, William’s fear of reprisal and constant nightmares, and reports on the wireless or in newspapers.  However, once William is reunited with his mother, the tone of the book shifts dramatically and it becomes terrifyingly obvious why this book is recommended for more mature readers.  The imagery is horrific and quite contrary to the idyllic life William experienced in Weirwold, which makes it all the more shocking and appalling when William has to relive this horror for a second time.     

Magorian, quite deservedly, received the 1982 IRA Children’s Book Award for Good Night, Mr. Tom.  She fearlessly delves into the psychological trauma that follows prolonged mental and physical abuse, as well as the impact it has not only on the abused themselves, but also on those around them offering support, healing, friendship, and love.  She also explores the emotional toll of the war on a small village as young men are called to service while their loved ones patiently await word of their wellbeing.  Thankfully, Magorian gives her readers sufficient mental breaks by balancing tense, emotionally exhaustive scenes with lighthearted moments shared between friends and family.  It’s this back-and-forth that makes for a fast-paced story that doesn’t pull any punches in delivering an impassioned, tragic, and dramatic story.

Good Night, Mr. Tom immerses readers with a story about bonds and their importance and fragility.  For the first time in his life, William has a best friend, Zach, who values his company, admires his differences, and treasures his friendship.  Also, William finally has a parental figure in whom he can trust and depend.  Magorian’s overall lesson in her compelling and powerful story is the healing power that comes with unconditional love.  William’s mother taught him that love came with strings (“Mum had said that if he made himself invisible, people would like him and he wanted that very much.”), but his friends in Weirwold and Mr. Tom showed him the beauty and power of a love given completely and unselfishly.  The Persian lyric poet Hafiz once wrote, “Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”  Zach’s kindness and Mr. Tom’s devotion remind us that even in the midst of war and surrounded by the darkest of black shades, love’s light shines bright and can heal even the most damaged and tortured soul.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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Bed & Breakfast by Lois Battle

Bed & Breakfast

Lois Battle

Josie Tatternall, military widow turned Bed & Breakfast proprietor, is about to reunite her thrown grown daughters for the holidays.  Following a sudden medical emergency of one of her closest friends, Josie realizes the fragility and uncertainty of life and decides that there is no time like the present to bring her estranged family together after ten long years apart.  But will her three headstrong daughters agree?  Can the beauty and majesty of Christmas yield hope and forgiveness and unite this broken family?  Josie is about to find out.

I began this book with very high expectations.  After all, the cover is brimming with glowing reviews: “Full of warmth, humor, and characters I completely adore,” touted author Dorothea Benton Frank and “An irreverent holiday treat,” exclaimed the Chicago Tribune.  Author Cassandra King said the characters in Battle’s book were “wonderfully eccentric” and “heartwarming” who have “become her friends”.  But alas, you truly can’t judge a book by its cover and my experience with this story and its characters left me feeling more bah humbug than holly and jolly.  Before delving further, let me explain how I rate books—50% of my review is about the book itself (story, characters, pace, themes, etc.) and the other 50% is how the book left me feeling (enlightened, hopeful, disturbed, retrospective, etc.).  With a rating of 2/5 stars, the latter far outweighed the former as I am still reeling with contempt at such an aggravating cast of characters. Allow me to elaborate without spoiling the story too much…

First, let me go down the list of main characters that ran the gamut of predictable and overused stereotypes: Josie, the dutiful military wife who puts her own wants and needs last; Josie’s domineering and womanizing military husband, Bear; Cam, Josie’s eldest who fled small town South Carolina for the bright lights of New York only to be rudely awakened by the fact that she is a very small fish in a huge pond; Lila, middle child, doting daughter, and perfect Southern wife who seemingly leads an idyllic, charmed life; and Evie, Josie’s youngest who was a one-time runner-up in the Miss South Carolina pageant and who uses her legs and lashes to their full advantage.

Second, it was actually surprising to read a book, written by a woman, with so many unlikeable female characters.  The daughters were all self-centered, selfish, whiny, immature, and just plain insufferable. Josie was a little more tolerable, but it’s one thing to be loyal to a husband who is a known philanderer (at least she respects and honors her vows) and quite another to pledge allegiance to a friend who—more likely than not—had abused her trust and taken advantage of their friendship.  This makes Josie more of a chump than a champion.  Overall, I’ve never met a more contemptible set of women that I disliked a lot, respected less, and fell victim to their own self-destructive behaviors and personalities.  Oddly, it was the men (Josie’s brother-in-law, Cam’s love interest, and Lila’s husband) who came across as decent, sympathetic, reliable, honorable, and morally grounded. 

This was the first book by Lois Battle that I’ve read.  The Florabama Ladies’ Auxiliary & Sewing Circle is still on my bookshelf and, rather than potentially throw the baby out with the bathwater, I will be giving Battle another try to see if her female leads fare any better in this book. 

I’ll end this review by mentioning a sentiment of Josie’s that she recalls several times throughout the book as she looks at the lives of her grown daughters: she did the best she could.  Unfortunately, I believe Battle could have done a little better for all of the women in the Tatternall family.

Rating: 2/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

Annual Top Ten Picks

It’s here! Our annual Top Ten Picks for 2020! We had LOADS of time to read this year and we read some truly great ones. Just a reminder that these are books that we reviewed in 2020 and not books published in 2020. We hope you will discover some new favorites from our list and if you have any that we should check out ourselves, please let us know in the Comments section! Happy reading!

Adult Fiction/Biography/Historical Fiction

  1. The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer (reviewed January 2020)
  2. Jewel by Bret Lott (reviewed January 2020)
  3. Paris is Always a Good Idea by Nicolas Barreau (reviewed February 2020)
  4. Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland by Dave Barry (reviewed March 2020)
  5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Historical Fiction) by Mary Ann Shaffer (reviewed April 2020)
  6. Tracks by Jim Black (reviewed May 2020)
  7. Tuesdays with Morrie (Memoir) by Mitch Albom (reviewed June 2020)
  8. A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding (Historical Fiction) by Jackie Copleton (reviewed June 2020)
  9. The Walk (Inspirational) by Richard Paul Evans (reviewed July 2020)
  10. The Zookeeper’s Wife (Non-Fiction) by Diane Ackerman (reviewed August 2020)

Juvenile/Young Adult

  1. Dovey Coe by Frances O’Roark (reviewed January 2020)
  2. Shadow of a Bull (Newbery Medal) by Maia Wojciechowska (reviewed February 2020)
  3. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Historical Fiction) by John Boyne (reviewed March 2020)
  4. We Were Here by Matt de la Peña (reviewed April 2020)
  5. Bronze and Sunflower (Historical Fiction) by Cao Wenxuan (reviewed April 2020)
  6. A Moment Comes (Historical Fiction) by Jennifer Bradbury (reviewed May 2020)
  7. The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio (Fantasy) by Lloyd Alexander (reviewed June 2020)
  8. Esperanza Rising (Historical Fiction) by Pam Muñoz Ryan (reviewed July 2020)
  9. It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (reviewed October 2020)
  10. Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley (Historical Fiction) by Ann Rinaldi (reviewed October 2020)

Castle in the Air (YA Fantasy)

Castle in the Air

Diana Wynne Jones (YA Fantasy)

Abdullah was a young carpet merchant who lived in the city of Zanzib.  It was clear that he had always been a disappointment to his father for upon his passing, all he left Abdullah was just enough money to buy and stock a modest booth in the northwest corner of the Bazaar.  Despite this, Abdullah knew he was destined for greater things.  In his daydreams, he was actually the kidnapped son of a mighty prince who must now live a life filled with heat, haggling, and the smell of fried squid.  But soon came the day when a man entered Abdullah’s booth.  A rude, imperious stranger bearing a worn out carpet that he wished to sell.  A carpet that was magical.  Could this carpet be the key to what his prophecy foretold upon his birth: “…he will be raised above all others in this land.”?  With a flying carpet in hand, Abdullah would soon find himself encountering an evil djinn, a bottled genie, an enchanted cat, and the beautiful girl of his dreams.

Castle in the Air is the second book in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Castle series.  Like its predecessor, this book is filled with wit, charm, action, adventure, and a lot of heart.  It’s the stuff that fairy tales are made of: a conniving stepmother, evil beasts, magical objects, princesses, curses, and large doses of bravery, kindness, loyalty, and love.  One thing that I appreciate about Jones is that she makes both her male and female protagonists equally strong, clever, and resourceful.  She resists the urge to diminish one character in order to elevate his or her counterpart and even writes that Abdullah’s love for his princess was strengthened by these admirable qualities: “Here Abdullah was somewhat amazed to discover that he, really and truly, did love Flower-in-the-Night just as ardently as he had been telling himself he did—or more, because he now saw he respected her. He knew he would die without her.”       

The first two-thirds of the book could very well have been a standalone story since only minor references to Howl’s Moving Castle were made.  However, once you just about hit the 200-page mark, that’s when things really pick up and several characters that readers fell in love with in the first book begin to make their appearances.  It’s not a showstopper if Castle in the Air is your first introduction to Jones’s wonderful flying castle trilogy, but you are lacking a bit of backstory that deepens the journey and makes reconnecting with these characters a nice reunion.    

Even though this series is targeted to young adult readers, it would be an engaging and delightful read for children grades five and up.  With strong females and morally-centered males, Jones gives us a nice alternative to darker fantasy books that tend to monopolize library and bookstore shelves.   With good triumphing in the end, bad getting its comeuppance after learning a valuable lesson, and a happy ending never far from sight, Castle in the Air reminds us that you cannot cheat Fate, to be very careful what you wish for, and that a little bit of kindness can go a very long way.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano

The Girl She Used to Be 

David Cristofano

I open my eyes and realize there is no way to turn this around. Before, there was one good guy and one bad guy; now I’m lost in a world of distrust and corruption and the odds of my survival have slipped to about one in a thousand.  The only person left I can trust is myself—and I have no idea who I am.

Melody Grace McCartney has been in the Witness Protection Program since she and her parents observed a violent murder on the morning of her sixth birthday.  By the age of 13, Melody had already exhausted six identities.  Through years of countless cities, occupations, and names, the only thing that Melody knows is that there is certainty in numbers.  In numbers, there is stability and consistency.  Math never lies.  Now 26, Melody is about to be relocated again when she encounters Jonathan Bovaro.  He’s charming, rich, and the son of the man who is the reason behind her seclusion and the murder of her parents.  Jonathan tells her that she is safe while she is with him, but after twenty years of hiding in the dark, can this man actually show Melody the light?

The Girl She Used to Be is a prime example of when people make very (very, very) bad decisions.  The book starts off promising, but with each chapter, the ludicrous choices begin to pile up faster than traffic on US 101 in California during rush hour.  Although we lament Melody’s loss of a “normal” childhood because of the secret she’s forced to keep, her twenty-year plight becomes a bit tedious and whiny as she is being relocated for the umpteenth time due to boredom (she gets a tad itchy at about the 18-month mark). Sadly, Jonathan “Johnny” Bovaro doesn’t come across any more likable or sympathetic.  His good intentions are clouded by a quick-trigger violent streak and his optimism of his Mafia family is laughable (hasn’t he seen The Godfather?  Even Zootopia should have clued him in—the arctic shrew mafia boss is cinematic genius by the way).   

All in all, David Cristofano’s novel isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but after an interesting enough start, it begins to fall apart about midway through and then just ends up in a tangled pile of spaghetti.  The actions and judgments of the story’s two main characters make the story implausible (surely adults aren’t THIS naïve) and hard to wrap your arms around.  Interestingly, Cristofano starts each chapter not with a title, but with an equation.  Unfortunately, his numbers just don’t quite add up.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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Savvy by Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)

Savvy 

Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)

There are certain things that the Beaumont family knows about secrets: they need them, they have them, and they keep them. In just a few days, when Mibs turns 13, she’ll join her mother’s side of the family and will have a secret of her very own. That’s when she’ll get her own savvy and her world—as she currently knows it—will never be the same. But before her big day, her father is involved in a terrible accident and left seriously injured. With her newly acquired supernatural power and a pink bible bus filled with a handful of misfits, Mibs encounters bikers, brawls, and plenty of banana cream pie in a race to bring her whole family together and to save her broken father.

A 2009 Newbery Honor Book, Savvy is an imaginative and heart-pounding adventure story filled with many relatable themes that are standard fare for young readers: bullying, standing out, fitting in, first love, and making friends. The first in a series of three books (Scumble and Switch are both complete stories, but make small references to the original book), Savvy is an easy-to-read, thrilling ride that introduces us to a quirky set of characters including the preacher’s daughter, a belittled bible salesman, and a waitress with a heart of gold. Each of these people allow Mibs to slowly understands that perhaps the Beaumonts aren’t the only ones that possess supernatural powers. The ability to encourage, to help, to listen, and to accept are just as powerful as any savvy and Mibs quickly realizes just how special her new friends are in their own way.

Ingrid Law packs so many wonderful lessons in this book and that alone is worth the read. Along the way, Mibs learns that sometimes a bad thing can make a good thing happen or that happy endings come in all shapes and sizes or that things don’t always happen the way you want them to. Perhaps the most valuable lesson Mibs receives was from her mother who told her, “In most ways, we Beaumonts are just like other people. We get born, and sometime later we die. And in between, we’re happy and sad, we feel love and we feel fear, we eat and we sleep and we hurt like everyone else.” Through the eyes of an awkward teenaged girl, Law reminds us of how much good can be accomplished and gained when we focus on our similarities rather than our differences.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor 

Rosina Harrison (Autobiography)

Rosina (Rose) Harrison was born in 1899 in a little village near Ripon in Yorkshire.  The daughter of a stonesman and a laundrymaid and the eldest of four children, Rose had but one desire in life: to travel.  In her 35 years of service to Lady Astor—Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor—Rose would not only travel the world, but she would become an integral part of the prestigious Astor family (“the landlords of New York”).  This is Rose’s life—told in her own words—that spans several wars, a coronation, 1,000-person receptions, misplaced jewelry, a missing sable tie, and a loving friendship that would endure all of these and more.

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor is a lady maid’s personal account of a life filled with dignitaries, disagreements, devotion, and discovery.  Fans of the British television series Upstairs, Downstairs or Amazon Prime’s Downton Abbey will appreciate this behind-the-scenes perspective into the lives of both the aristocracy and their attendants.  Through Rose, we gain an appreciation of what it is to work for someone whose heart is charitable, but whose tongue is often sharp and cruel; we experience dinners with Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and George Bernard Shaw; we see how entertaining is not just an event, but an industry; we understand that the key to a beautiful floral arrangement is to consult with Nature herself; and we learn the correct way to “pop” a champagne cork (gently unscrew the cork, cover it with a napkin, and then by tilting the bottle to one side, the cork will come out easily and quietly).  

Rose is an entertaining look into the innerworkings of the wealthy and those who keep the gears of this expensive and vast machine greased and operating flawlessly.  While no employer/employee relationship is without its ups and downs, the respect, dependency, and devotion between Rose and Lady Astor spanned over three decades and showed us the meaning of perseverance and the value of loyalty. 

Rose Harrison died at the age of 90 in 1989.  Although she never married nor had any children, hers was a life fulfilled and a dream attained.  When Rose was asked by Bobbie Shaw (Lady Astor’s son by her first marriage) what she would like most in this world, Rose replied, after a moment’s hesitation, “To live my life over again”.  In her autobiography, published in 1975, she wrote that her answer would be the same. 

Lady Astor enjoyed a close twenty-year friendship with playwright George Bernard Shaw and so it seems fitting that I end this review with a quote of his that I think adequately sums up the life of Rosina Harrison: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”  Rose created a full and satisfying life through her employment and friendship with Lady Astor.  She gave as good as she got and quickly became a respected and trusted confidante to a woman who was the second elected female Member of Parliament, but the first to take her seat.  Not bad for a spunky Yorkshire girl who thought that life couldn’t get any better than luxuriating in the family’s hip bath.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley by Ann Rinaldi (YA Historical Fiction)

Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley 

Ann Rinaldi (YA Historical Fiction)

It was May 1772 and Phillis Wheatley was going to Province House in Boston to prove that she—and she alone—authored the poetry that had caught the attention of so many.  Soon this 17-year-old slave would be standing in front of merchants, clergy, councilmen, the lieutenant governor and governor, and John Hancock to prove the authenticity of her work.  It wouldn’t be easy, for who could have imagined that an uneducated African girl could not only read and write, but produce such astonishing work.  But before Phillis Wheatley came to this critical juncture in her life, her journey would start ten years ago in Senegal, West Africa where a disgruntled uncle would sell her for brandy, some cowrie shells, and muskets.

With just a few minor exceptions, Ann Rinaldi gives readers an historically accurate account of Phillis Wheatley’s remarkable journey from slavery to becoming America’s first published black poet.  This young girl, who was sold into slavery at the age of seven and named after the very ship that carried her to America, would grow up to meet such dignitaries as John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington.  Rinaldi takes us to Boston where we relive the Smallpox Epidemic of 1764, the Quartering Act, the Sugar and Stamp Acts, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party and the retaliatory Boston Port Act of 1774, and the Suffolk Resolves.  It’s a delight for history enthusiasts and an unbelievable story for readers of all ages.

Up until the time of its publication in 1996, Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons was the first “humanistic” story written about Phillis Wheatley.  As Rinaldi explains in her Author’s Note, “All the books written about [Phillis Wheatley] at present are scholarly, concerned with the dry facts of her life or her classical poetry.”  When Rinaldi told her friend, an African American librarian, that she was writing a book that would “put flesh” onto Phillis Wheatley, her friend’s response was, “It’s about time.”  Indeed, it was.

Phillis Wheatley’s story is heartbreaking and tragic.  Despite her literary gifts and talent, she died in poverty and obscurity.  Although she was granted freedom by her master, she was never able to rise above the limitations she faced due to the color of her skin.  Although these are Rinaldi’s words and not Phillis’s, one can imagine the poet saying something similar: “…I love that when I write I am not skinny and black and a slave.  My writing has no color.  It has no skin at all, truth to tell.”  Phillis Wheatley’s poems may not have had skin, but they were brimming with heart and soul and hope.  “I could scarce contain my own excitement,” Rinaldi’s Phillis said.  “The more I wrote, the more excited I became.  I felt like Columbus must have felt when he just discovered America.  Only the land that I had sighted was myself.  In a way, my own way, I was free.”    

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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