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

 

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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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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Along Came a Dog by Meindert DeJong (J)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

Along Came a Dog

Along Came a Dog    

Meindert DeJong (Juvenile Fiction)

The little red hen was having a splendid day in the barnyard.  Spring had finally arrived and the weather was warm, the sun was bright, and she had just laid her first egg of the season.  Proudly, she sat atop the man’s shoulder as he cleaned the coop floor and spread out fresh hay.  Life on the farm was splendid indeed…until the big black dog appeared.  Suddenly, this fur-covered menace had disrupted her otherwise splendid day and that wouldn’t stand one bit.  After all, it was a pack of dogs that had killed all of the red hens in her flock and she alone had survived.  No, the big black dog had to go and it was up to the man to do it.  But no matter how determined the man was to get rid of the dog, the dog was more determined to stay for he had decided that this farm was his and no distance was going to separate him from his newly found home.

This is the second book I’ve read by Meindert DeJong (the first being The Wheel on the School) and he again delights with a beautifully told story that reads almost like a fairytale.  The actions and emotions exhibited by the animals are true to their nature so don’t expect camaraderie within the flock or gentle misunderstandings between the hen and the dog.  DeJong gives us an accurate portrayal of farm life in all its splendor and savagery and readers will soon understand that life is hard and often unfair in the barnyard.  Thankfully, DeJong is mindful of the age of his intended reader so he makes sure that bad is always followed by good and those possessing purity of heart and deed are eventually rewarded.  Also, the story does seem to lag just a bit near the middle, so readers are encouraged to dutifully plow ahead as the ending will merit their effort and patience.

Along Came a Dog is a story of duty, purpose, loyalty, and an overwhelmingly desire to belong, and it serves as a wonderful example of the benefits of perseverance and the virtues of honor.  It was both heartbreaking and heartwarming to see dog so steadfast in his mission to return to a place where he obviously wasn’t welcome.  But, his rationale was quite simple: “He was back.  Twice he’d been taken away, and twice now he’d come back.  And if the man were to take him away thirty times, he’d come back thirty times.  He wasn’t dim-witted—he knew he wasn’t wanted here.  But every time he was taken away, he’d try to come back.  It wasn’t a plan in the big dog’s mind. It was a need, a desperation to have a home.  He was going to have a home!  It was that simple.”  On that fateful spring day, a friendship was formed and a home was discovered when a hen with broken feet and a dog with an unbroken spirit found each other.  When you think about it, it turned out to be a rather splendid day after all.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

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Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton (J)

Bedknob and Broomstick

Bed-Knob and Broomstick    

Mary Norton (Juvenile Fiction)

Carey, Charles, and Paul Wilson are rather ordinary children who are planning to spend a rather ordinary summer with an old aunt in Bedfordshire.  The children, not being very fond of her house, choose to spend most of their time outdoors playing in the barns, by the river, in the lanes, and on the hills.  One day seemed to flow into the next rather uneventfully until the day that Miss Price hurt her ankle.  It was on that day where this story truly begins because Miss Price didn’t just visit the sick or teach piano or was the most ladylike in the village.  Miss Price also happened to be a witch…well, a novice witch…and it was this same Miss Price who cast a spell upon one of Paul’s bed-knobs—a spell that could take him and his bed anyplace in the present or past.  A spell that would eventually lead to a trip to the police station, an encounter with cannibals, and a chance meeting with a lonely necromancer.  Perhaps this will not be an ordinary summer for the Wilson children after all.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick is the combination of Norton’s The Magic Bed-knob (1943) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947).  The first part covers the initial meeting between the Wilson children and Miss Price and details their adventures in the present while the second part picks up two years after and sends the group into the past.  Norton’s tale is sure to delight younger readers and has enough unexpected twists and turns to keep older readers engaged as well.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick is a humorous, suspenseful, and enchanting book filled with courage, loyalty, friendship, and love.  American author Debasish Mridha once said, “The magic of love is that it has the power to create a magical world in and around us.”  Norton indeed gives us a magical world which teaches us that you’re never too young for an adventure and you’re never too old to find love.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

Dogsong by Gary Paulsen (YA)

Dogsong.jpg

Dogsong    

Gary Paulsen (Young Adult Fiction)

During the winter, Russel Susskit and his father live in a sixteen by twenty government house in a small Eskimo village.  Come summer, both will move to the fish camps.  For now, Russel wakes up every morning to his father’s smoking-induced cough; the absence of his mother, who left with a white trapper; and the growing unhappiness he feels when he thinks of his current life and, more importantly, his future.  Russel wants to be more, but when he looks ahead, he only sees less.  Russel’s father sends him to the local shaman, Oogruk, who owns the last team of dogs in the village.  Oogruk tells Russel that he needs to discover his own song and returning to the old ways of his people may help.  Driven by a recurring dream and a team of five great red dogs, Russel heads north searching for answers and a song.

Dogsong is divided into two parts: Russel’s training with Oogruk and his solitary journey north.  It is the second part of this book that is disappointing and not particularly compelling.  We find ourselves caught in a seemingly tedious storyline loop:  run, eat, dream, repeat.  The story drags like a sled maneuvering through slush and Paulsen fails to provide enough action to hold either the reader’s interest or attention.  A sudden story twist near the end arrives far too late to save what could have been an interesting boy-versus-nature adventure story.

One notable bright spot was Oogruk’s advice to Russel about life and living.  “It isn’t the destination that counts,” Oogruk said.  “It is the journey.  That is what life is.  A journey.  Make it the right way and you will fill it correctly with days.  Pay attention to the journey.”  All too often we find ourselves consumed or distracted by the things that have little to no effect on our life or circumstances.  In hindsight, we often come to realize that it is the small things that have the biggest impact.  If we take an old shaman’s advice and simply look up, look around, and pay attention, perhaps we too can find the words to our own song.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com