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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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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The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Garth Stein (Adult Fiction)

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.  And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. 

Enzo is just one of many mixed-breed pups (although he’s quite sure that his father was a terrier) living on a little farm in Spangle, Washington.  When Dennis “Denny” Swift sees him, he knows immediately that his heart will never again be his own.  “This one,” Denny states without a moment’s hesitation.  So begins a life that will include marriage, a child, some ups, more downs, but most of all, it will have racing.  Lots and lots of racing.

It isn’t often that you come across a book that allows you to view the world from a wonderfully unique perspective.  Seeing the world through the eyes of an aging Labrador-terrier mix was a delight and made for an unforgettable journey.  Enzo introduces us to his master, Denny, a semi-professional racecar driver whose natural talent behind the wheel is offset only by the misfortunes that seem to tail him at every one of life’s turns.  We also meet Eve, the woman Denny falls in love with and marries, and Zoë, Denny and Eve’s daughter.  Like all families, there is a mixture of good times and bad, only with this family, we are able to see their story unfold through a very special and astute lens.

Hailing from NASCAR country, I was familiar with most of the racing jargon that Garth uses throughout his book.  However, he goes the extra mile to ensure that non-racing enthusiasts will not only understand the terminology, but may also gain an appreciation for the sport and the talent and grit demanded of its drivers.  Several laugh-out-loud moments coupled with some tear-filled scenes balance out the racing sequences nicely to ensure that our story keeps moving along at a nice, smooth pace.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is the ultimate love story between a human and those furry, funny, and fantastically annoying yet adorable creatures we call family.  The book is also laden with racing metaphors that teach us a great deal about love and life in general: “The race is long—to finish first, first you must finish,” or “The car goes where the eyes go,” and my favorite, “It’s all about the ride.”  This last one comes after Denny takes Enzo on his first and only ride on a track and Enzo gets to experience the thrill and excitement that comes from actually racing versus simply viewing it through a dashcam video.  Throughout our story, Enzo is always wanting to go faster.  Faster, Denny, faster.  But as I was nearing the last page, all I wanted time to do was slow down.  I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to this wonderful narrator that showed me that life was about living, loving, and—most importantly—listening because listening is what Enzo, like all of our furry companions, does best.  Thank you, Garth Stein…and Enzo…for giving me a ride that I will surely remember for a long, long time.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.walmart.com

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The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse (J)

The Music of Dolphins

The Music of Dolphins     

Karen Hesse (Juvenile Fiction)

I swim out to them on the murmuring sea.  As I reach them, their circle opens to let me in, then re-forms.  The dolphins rise and blow, floating, one eye open, the other shut in half sleep.

They discovered her during a routine surveillance flight.  At first, they thought she was a mermaid with hair down to her feet and a body blanketed in seaweed.  But as the flight crew on the Coast Guard Jay Hawk flew closer, they realized that what they spotted was not a mermaid, but a young girl.  The crew named her Mila meaning “miracle” for how else can one explain how a young girl could survive for so many years with only dolphins for mentors and companions?  As researchers teach Mila language and music, she slowly begins to understand what it means to be human and the more she understands, the more she longs to return to her beloved sea and the security of her dolphin family.

Hesse gives us a beautifully captivating story that is filled with love, loss, and a longing for home.  Mila narrates her journey from the sea to captivity and Hesse adeptly allows young readers to experience Mila’s learning curve and metamorphosis from “dolphin girl” to human through the use of font size.  A large font size is used initially to show Mila’s unfamiliarity with newly introduced customs and language.  As her proficiency and comfort increases, the font size decreases.  When Mila slowly begins to feel trapped within her human confines and her hope of being returned to the sea fades, the font begins to increase and the reader immediately understands that she is reverting to her former self.  This visual successfully creates a sense of suspense and anxiety for the reader.  By simply altering font sizes, the reader knows that the situation is turning dire for our young heroine and allows Hesse to avoid spelling it out for them.  It’s a clever use of fonts and highly effective.

Although Mila is enjoying her time on land and all the new discoveries she encounters on a daily basis, nothing ever quite matches the pull she feels for home.  Just as the cliff swallows make their 6,000-mile flight every March to San Juan Capistrano, California or you hear of a family pet traveling months and hundreds of miles to find its way back to its owner, nothing quite matches the lure of home.  Like another literary heroine who found herself picked up and then dropped into a foreign land, Mila reminds us that there really is no place like home.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret Scripture

The Secret Scripture

Sebastian Barry (Adult Fiction)

The Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital is scheduled for demolition.  All current patients are to be evaluated in order to determine whether they are mentally suitable for integration into the community.  This process goes fairly well until Dr. William Grene has to make a recommendation concerning Roseanne McNulty—a patient nearing her one hundredth year and who has spent over half of her life in hospitals.  Her original paperwork has long since vanished and the only history he has to go on are a combination of Roseanne’s memory of her past, the notes from a Catholic priest in her hometown of County Sligo, Ireland, and diary entries that she personally has made throughout her hospital commitment.  Can Dr. Grene put together enough of Roseanne’s past in order to safely and confidently determine her future?

The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was the recipient of the Costa Book of the Year Award, and named a Best Book of the Year by Boston Globe and Economist.  For such a heralded book, it makes me wonder why I am seemingly in the minority for disliking it so much.  Firstly, this is one of those rare books that I was tempted—more than once—to discard and just move on to something else.  Although the writing was beautiful and the descriptions and details were vivid and elaborate, the stories of both Roseanne and Dr. Grene were boring and failed to capture either my imagination or interest.  Imagine being on a boat surrounded by beautiful sights, smells, and sounds and just when your anticipation for your upcoming excursion has reached its apex, you are kindly told to get out.  Of course, the obvious response would be, “But, we haven’t GONE anywhere yet.”  This is exactly what this story felt like…an abundance of artistry surrounding a journey to nowhere.  Secondly, I think Barry has built his entire story on a false premise.  Given the fact that Roseanne is nearing the century mark, her health is failing, she has spent almost sixty years in an infinitely convalescent state, and her mental capacity is such that neither she nor the evaluating psychiatrist can determine fact from fiction, why is this “evaluation” even taking place?  It’s clearly a nonstarter.

I finished this book with the singular purpose of providing an honest review, which I cannot do unless the entire book has been read.  After a very long two weeks, I am able to move on with life for this book is now done as is this review.  By my rating, this is clearly not the worst book that I’ve ever come across, but it certainly is far from being an award winner which is why I placed it squarely in the middle.  I wish I could have loved it as much as so many others undoubtedly did, but its draw and praises have left me as clouded and confused as the mind of our aged and sympathetic centenarian heroine.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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