The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton (J Fantasy)

The Borrowers Afield

Mary Norton (J Fantasy)

It had been a year since Mrs. May told young Kate the story of the borrowers. Since that time, Kate had completely pushed their memory to the farthest corner of her mind until one early spring day when Mrs. May slipped her a letter and said, “This will interest you, Kate, I think.” And indeed it had since that letter had to do with Leighton Buzzard. Leighton Buzzard, as you might recall, was the country town where Great Aunt Sophy’s house was and it was in that house, as you might remember, where underneath the kitchen floorboards lived the Clocks: Pod, Homily, and Arrietty. But whatever happened to those poor Clocks? Last time we saw them, they had been smoked out of their comfortable home and left fleeing for their lives—never to be seen or heard from again. But worry not for there is one soul who knows exactly what happened to our dear friends and it is that very same person that Mrs. May and Kate—quite by chance—are about to meet.

Three years after writing The Borrowers in 1952, Mary Norton picks right up where she left off with The Borrowers Afield where our favorite trio are tirelessly trekking from Firbank to Perkin’s Beck in search of the badger’s set, home to the Hendrearies. In this book, Arrietty finally realizes her dream of living outdoors and becoming a true borrower; Homily begins to toughen up a bit, although required to become a vegetarian; and Pod continues to hold his family together while keeping an even temper and maintaining loving order. Their journey has them finding an unexpected abode, meeting several troublesome insects, and encountering a very helpful yet mysterious stranger.

Norton does not fail to live up to the expectations she established for her readers with her first book in the beloved Borrowers’ series. This next chapter is filled with adventure and ample amounts of danger, disappointment, and discovery. Through their ups and downs, the Clock family begin to not only learn more about themselves and their own capabilities, but they also learn more about one another, which results in a deeper appreciation for one another.

This book stresses family much more than the first as it truly is the Clocks vs the World. In doing so, our little troupe form a tighter bond and realize that if you’re with family, you’re already home. The Borrowers Afield is truly a fun frolic with plenty of action and suspense and every bit worthy of its predecessor.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

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Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright (J Newbery Medal)

Thimble Summer

Elizabeth Enright (J Newbery Award)

It was the hottest day in the entire history of the world. At least it felt like it to Garnet Linden as she looked out over her family’s dying crops. Where was the rain? If it didn’t come soon, they would have to harvest their oats for hay and wouldn’t have enough money to pay their mounting bills. On top of all that, her father needed a new barn. Her family not only needed rain, they needed a miracle, but all Garnet had was a small silver thimble that she’d found in the damp, sandy flats of the river. What possible good could that ever do?

Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer received the Newbery Medal in 1939. Her book is a culmination of her grandmother’s childhood stories, her mother’s school days, her own experiences, and various memories of her friends and relatives. All told, Enright gives us a nine-year-old’s memorable summer filled with a high-speed bus ride, runaway chickens, a blue ribbon, a new sibling, and an unexpected sleepover in the town library. Thimble Summer is charming, engaging, and the ideal read for a young reader looking for adventure and suspense without any of the tragedy. It highlights the kindness of strangers and reminds us that family is so much more than blood. Although this story wouldn’t translate well today (as a nine-year old hitchhiking to another town would elicit a call from both local law enforcement and child protective services), readers still have to admire Garnet’s hutzpah when it comes to showing her older brother that she isn’t a total failure while looking good doing it!

In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, Enright noted the joy she gleaned from writing about children for children since “a child sees everything sharp and radiant; each object with its shadow beside it. Happiness is more truly happiness than it will ever be again, and is caused by such little things.” I think through Garnet Linden, Elizabeth Enright is encouraging all of us to hold onto the magic of delighting in the little things that life has to offer so that we too can experience our very own thimble summer.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Moffats by Eleanor Estes (J)

The Moffats  

Eleanor Estes (Juvenile Fiction)

The yellow house on New Dollar Street was the best house on the whole block. Because it stood exactly half-way down the street, you could see all the way to both corners: all the way down to Elm Street where the trolley ran and all the way down Wood Street where the railroad tracks ran. Perhaps what made it even more special was the fact that it was home to the Moffats: Mama, Sylvie, Joe, Jane, Rufus, and Catherine-the-cat. Yes, everything was as perfect as perfect can be on that fine late summer day until Mr. Baxter, Cranbury’s off-jobs man, nailed that horrible “For Sale” sign on their wonderful yellow house. But times were hard and there seemed to be little interest in the yellow house. Perhaps Jane and her family still had loads of time to do what Moffats do best—turn an ordinary day into an adventure!

In 1941, Eleanor Estes introduced readers to the Moffat family. Over a span of forty-two years and four books, the Moffats have captured the hearts and imaginations of multiple generations with their charm, humor, and abiding optimism. Rather than a seamless story, The Moffats is presented in delightful vignettes that see our four siblings encounter an attic ghost, a dancing dog, a trolley stand-off, a box of kittens, mean ole Peter Frost, and those nosey Murdocks. Each story touches upon some memorable life lesson centered around such topics as pride, indulgence, selfishness, generosity, courage, and honesty and is long enough to fully immerse the reader in a well-developed escapade while short enough to keep even the smallest attention span fully engaged. Although the family is fatherless, Estes doesn’t belabor the point and avoids portraying the family as victims or outsiders.  Instead, they are a strong and tight family unit with their own unique set of quirks and talents.

So much is said about the Moffat’s yellow house, that I looked upon it as the seventh family member. It served as the stabilizing foundation for this wonderful brood and gave them a tangible link to a father taken from them too soon. But as author M. K. Soni once wrote, “A house is made of brick and mortar, but home is made by the people who live there.” It’s those people, the Moffats, who remind us that no matter what life throws your way or where life might take you, you’re never far from home as long as you’re with family.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (J)

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

Kathi Appelt (Juvenile Fiction)

Raccoons have been the official scouts of Sugar Man Swamp for eons (and that’s a really long time). Brothers Bingo and J’miah aren’t just ordinary swamp scouts. No, no, no! They’re Information Officers, a highly specialized branch of the Scout system. On the rooftop of Information Headquarters (which happens to look an awful lot like a 1949 DeSoto Sportsman) on the banks of the Bayou Tourterelle, our brave scouts keep vigil over their beloved swamp and try their very best to make their parents proud and to respectfully serve the Sugar Man. Not far from Information Headquarters is twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn. Mourning the recent loss of his beloved grandfather, Chap is now the man of the house and uncomfortably in the crosshairs of one Sonny Boy Beaucoup, owner of Sugar Man Swamp. Sonny Boy wants to build a wresting arena and theme park right smack dab in the middle of the swamp! No, no, no! Before long, the scouts and Chap find themselves in a race against time to save the swamp and everything they hold dear.

I loved Kathi Appelt’s Newbery Honor book The Underneath and was delighted that this book had the same warmth, charm, and appeal. Packed with plenty of action and adventure, young readers will relish this story filled with pirates, feral hogs, a giant rattlesnake, and a hairy giant as tall as a tree with hands as wide as palmettos. The short chapters, numerous say-out-loud sounds (how fun is it to pretend to be a snake by mimicking its rattle with a “chichichichichi” or to sssssssspeak like a ssssssssnake), and humorous side comments make this a ready-made bedtime story. Readers will thrill in the antics of Bingo and J’miah while parents will appreciate the valuable moral lessons repeated throughout the book. Although there is a bit of thievery in our story, can you really blame two hungry scouts when such delicious sugar pies are involved? No, no, no!

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is about family, loyalty, and bravery. But at its core, this book is a love letter to Mother Nature and reminds us that no matter how slimy, scary, slippery, scaly, scummy, or scratchy some creatures, objects, or places might be, they each play an invaluable role in an ecosystem that is extremely complex, amazingly fragile, and so very precious and irreplaceable. As Chap’s grandfather, Audie, always told him, “Nosotros somos paisanos. We are fellow countrymen. We come from the same soil.” We could all benefit by following the Official Sugar Man Swamp Scout Orders: Keep your eyes open; Keep your ears to the ground; Keep your nose in the air; Be true and faithful to each other; In short, be good.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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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 Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio by Lloyd Alexander (J Fantasy)

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

Lloyd Alexander (Juvenile Fantasy)

 If you were to ask Evariste what he thought of his nephew, Carlo Chuchio, he would say that the lad was nothing more than a thankless, dimwitted daydreamer.  A “chooch”.  And perhaps he was right.  Having an uncle who was an importer, Carlo spent his days loitering at the docks and imagining places waiting to be visited and explored—places far beyond his home in Magenta.  Adventure, as fate would have it, was a lot closer than Carlo had imagined for when he happened upon a bookseller in the market, he was offered a book of fantastic tales.  Stories of magic carpets and genies in lamps and caves filled with treasure.  But this particular book didn’t just contain wondrous stories, it also hid a map with the most intriguing and irresistible two words that Carlo could ever imagine: “Royal Treasury”.  Soon, Carlo would be embarking on a journey that involved an unlikely set of traveling companions…all heading to Cathai and the fabled “Road of Golden Dreams”.

Lloyd Alexander takes readers on a magical journey filled with suspense, danger, mishaps, missteps, humor, and romance.  Although there’s no flying carpet or bottled genie, there is plenty to delight and entertain readers of any age.  At the heart of this story is young Carlo Chuchio, a dreamer filled with integrity who would not let his desire to be held in high regard outweigh his need to do the right thing.  He soon realizes the burden of having a conscience, but the blessing that comes with listening to it.

Along Carlo’s journey, he meets up with a delightful set of companions.  Baksheesh, a camel-puller, proves to be an invaluable adviser and is always ready with a fast line or two in order to escape trouble…or work.  There’s quiet and observant Salamon, who is childlike in his eagerness, curiosity, and joy when discovering something new.  Then there’s Sira, who is not what she appears to be.  She bears a tragic past and although her heart is filled with vengeance and heartache, perhaps there’s still a bit of room left for love.  Together, the group encounters ruffians, warlords, a dream merchant, a painter, rivaling tribes, armies, a horse master, and perhaps the most repugnant of them all, a storyteller.  While encountering danger and death at almost every turn, our ragtag troupe reminds us that it is often cunning and cleverness that have a sharper edge and can cut just as deep as any saber or tulwar.

Of all the characters in this book, it is Salamon who is perhaps my favorite.  He is a kind and gentle man of few words, but when he does offer up some advice or wisdom, they are balm to the soul.  When Carlo was unsure about what his future held, Salamon replied, “What remains to be seen is always the most interesting.”  And when Carlo was telling Salamon about his quest for treasure, Salamon came up with a gem of his own: “As if a fortune could make up for the bother of gaining it.  No, no, my lad: The journey is the treasure.”

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio teaches us so many lessons: not to judge a book by its cover, the virtues found by putting your faith in the untrustworthy, or the comfort gained from seeking hope amongst the impossible.  But above all, Lloyd Alexander gives us a wonderful and exciting story about a boy who discovers all the possibilities and treasure that the world has to offer all because one day, he seized upon the remarkable opportunity to open up a book.  How much richer can you possibly get?

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (J Fantasy)

Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting

Natalie Babbitt (Juvenile Fantasy)

Winnie did not believe in fairy tales.  She had never longed for a magic wand, did not expect to marry a prince, and was scornful—most of the time—of her grandmother’s elves.  So now she sat, mouth open, wide-eyed, not knowing what to make of this extraordinary story.  It couldn’t—not a bit of it—be true.  And yet…

Ten-year-old Winnie Foster lives with her father, mother, and grandmother in Treegap.  They were the first family in the area and laid proud claim to Treegap wood and the touch-me-not cottage that laid on its outskirts.  She was the only child in the household and, on this particular day, she was bored.  And hot.  And it’s only the first week in August.  After being pecked at by both her mother and grandmother, Winnie ventures outside to seek solitude.  But peace won’t be hers that day for a man in a yellow suit comes up to the iron fence and is looking for a family.  He also has a particular interest in their wood.  Winnie has never ventured outside the fence let alone into the wood.  Maybe she can find some solitude there.  And who knows?  Maybe she’ll find something interesting.

Written in 1975, Tuck Everlasting has sold over 5 million copies and is considered a modern classic in children’s literature.  It’s the story of the Tuck family—father and mother (Angus and Mae), and brothers Miles and Jesse—who drink from a spring in Treegap wood and inadvertently discover immortality.  They’ve been able to keep their secret safe until a chance encounter with Winnie Foster threatens everything they’ve been concealing.  Tuck Everlasting is folkloric in nature and woven with bits of fantasy, drama, and a touch romance.  It’s written for ages 10 and up and its broad-based themes of sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, love, and family ensures a very wide appeal.

Babbitt delivers a detailed and beautifully told story that is rich in symbolism.  Watch for the toad that pops up throughout various points in Winnie’s story.  He’s more than just a convenient friend and marks notable shifts in Winnie’s maturity.  There are also numerous mentions of imprisonment or feeling trapped.  At one point, Winnie recalls a verse from an old poem (Richard Lovelace’s 1642 poem “To Althea, from Prison”) which goes, “Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage.”  Winnie feels imprisoned by her mother and grandmother (and the literal iron bars that surround her yard) while the Tucks are prisoners of time itself.  Both are trapped, but Winnie alone has any future chance of escape.

Tuck Everlasting was a quick read packed with moral lessons and questions (Would you want to live forever?).  The only criticism I had was that the ending felt forced and rushed.  Babbitt spent such an inordinate amount of time painting this detailed image of the wood and the Tucks into our minds, that the end fell a little flat.  This was one of those stories that an additional twenty pages might have helped give a more ample and satisfying conclusion rather than a one- to two-page condensed summary that wrapped everything up.  It just left this wonderful journey feeling incomplete and inadequate.

In closing, I will repeat a bit of wisdom that Miles imparted to Winnie, “People got to do something useful if they’re going to take up space in the world.”  During my limited time of taking up space in this world, it is my hope that my reviews and insights provide you with something useful and perhaps even help you discover a book and a story that will stay in your heart forever.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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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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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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Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls (J)

Summer of the Monkeys

Summer of the Monkeys

Wilson Rawls (Young Adult Fiction)

Up until I was fourteen years old, no boy on earth could have been happier.  I didn’t have a worry in the world.  In fact, I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be hard at all for me to grow up.  But, just when things were really looking good for me, something happened.  I got mixed up with a bunch of monkeys and all of my happiness flew right out the window.  Those monkeys all but drove me out of my mind.

It’s the late 1800s and brand-new country just opened up for settlement.  The Lee family were sharecroppers in Missouri, but providence led them to a farm right in the middle of Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma.  Life is good for fourteen-year-old Jay Berry and his parents, although a bit tougher for his sister, Daisy, who was born with a twisted leg and got by with the help of a crutch.  It’s summer and Jay Berry has the entire farm to explore…not to mention he has his eyes set on owning his very own .22 and a pony.  But then his grandfather brings word that some monkeys have escaped the circus and the reward to anyone who finds them is more than Jay Berry can count!  With his grandfather’s help, Jay Berry sets off to find and capture those monkeys, even if it takes him the whole summer to do it.

I unashamedly admit that I am a complete pushover for any book where the parents are respected, the grandparents are revered, or a boy’s best friend is his trusted dog.  Written in 1976 by Wilson Rawls—author of the classic Where the Red Fern Grows—Summer of the Monkeys has all three.  Rawls gives us a lovely story about family, sacrifice, and faith and the importance of putting aside what your heart desires and instead focusing on what your heart requires.  The writing is down-to-earth and folksy and the lessons are timeless.  Today’s young adult readers may find the dialogue and situations a bit trite and hokey, but a story of a brother’s love for his little sister or a father’s pride in his son never truly goes out of style.

Throughout the book, Rawls shows us the strong bond of the Lee family and the particularly tender relationship between Jay Berry and his grandfather.  On one occasion, Jay Berry mentioned to his grandfather how much fun the two have together to which the grandfather replied, “We surely do.  You know, an old man like me can teach a young boy like you all the good things in life.  But it takes a young boy like you to teach an old man like me to appreciate all the good things in life.  I guess that’s what life’s all about.”  Call me old-fashioned or sentimental, but books like this always remind me that whenever you have a loving family, a wizened grandpa or a furry companion by your side, life is never really all that bad.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com