The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (YA)

The Canning Season

The Canning Season     

Polly Horvath (Young Adult Fiction)

Thirteen-year old Ratchet Clark (her father wanted to name her Stinko) lives with her mother, Henriette, who dreams of belonging to the Pensacola Hunt Club (“Thank God for the Hunt Club” is the mantra in their household).  Henriette works two jobs, sustains the family on Cheerios, and constantly reminds her daughter to cover up That Thing on her shoulder (it is unsightly).  Life moves along at a predictable pace until the day that Henriette sends Ratchet to live with her two great aunts in Maine.  Tilly and Penpen Menuto (DON’T call them the Blueberry Ladies!) are twins, but as different as chalk and cheese.  Tilly is tiny and thin and Penpen is round and jolly, but both are as devoted to canning as they are to one another.  Between blueberries, bears, a one-way phone, an unexpected orphan, and countless stories of a headless mother, Ratchet’s summer will prove to be anything but predictable.

The Canning Season is a delightful, entertaining, and hilarious romp.  Fans of Philip Gulley or Ann B. Ross will find equal enjoyment in the Menuto sisters and their tales of loggers, love, and the lure of the woods.  Some of the language in this book is a bit salty, but is appropriate to the targeted age (13 and older) and shouldn’t shock anyone who watches PG-13 films or hangs out at the local mall.

Throughout the book, we see Henriette placing an unhealthy importance on belonging to the Pensacola Hunt Club, which remains an elusive aspiration.  We find out that the club really isn’t as exclusive as first thought and, in reality, is open to anyone wanting to join.  Drawing a nice parallel with Tilly and Penpen’s home, we see that the ominous house on the hill surrounded by bear-infested woods isn’t really what it appears to be either.  It is actually warm, welcoming, and inclusive; all who enter are taken care of and treated with respect, kindness, and love (except Myrtle Trout…Heaven help her).  The Canning Season reminds us that things are not often what they seem and that love is often found in the least likely of places.  Thank God for the Hunt Club, indeed.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com

 

Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert (J)

Incident at Hawk's Hill

Incident at Hawk’s Hill     

Allan W. Eckert (Juvenile Fiction)

Twenty miles north of Winnipeg, in the year 1870, there stood the farm of William MacDonald, his wife, Esther, and their four children.  They named their farm Hawk’s Hill and for many years, the family thrived on the land.  Everyone thrived except the youngest child, Ben.  At six years old, he was much smaller than other children his own age.  He was also quiet, withdrawn, and seemed to get along better with the surrounding animals than with his own family.  Ben would often imitate the animals he came in contact with—mimicking their sounds and movements.  The folks in town called him strange, odd, and different.  But Ben derived a certain amount of comfort when he was with the animals, and in turn, the animals drew comfort from him.  One day, Ben wandered a bit too far from home and found himself hopelessly lost.  Little did he realize that his rescuer would be a female badger who needed him almost as much as he needed her.

The author’s note states that this book “is a slightly fictionalized version of an incident which actually occurred at the time and place noted.”  Intrigued, I did a little research and found that this claim could neither be substantiated nor does the author provide any further documentation.  Some believe Eckert’s story is based on legend while others think that it came from an article about a boy who, in 1873, lived in a badger hole for 10 days.  Regardless, Eckert gives us an interesting main character who is part Dr. Dolittle and part John Audubon and, through his exploits in and around his farm, offers readers a fascinating insight into the natural world.  Eckert also provides a greater understanding of the hunting, nesting, and breeding habits of the badger sow.  Although the book is filled with many interesting facts and details, the pace doesn’t lag and the story never feels weighted down.

Through the unimaginable and unlikely bond formed between a boy and a badger, we are treated to a story of survival, friendship, and devotion.  I truly enjoyed this book, but deducted a rating point since this is one of those rare children’s books that lacks a sufficient ending.  Because of the emotional commitment required on the reader’s part, the author should have provided a definitive ending merely out of a sense of obligation…especially given the age of the intended audience.  But rather than acquiring a sense of closure, we are left feeling deserted, confused, and rather perturbed.  There are stories that purposely leave the ending open-ended in order to encourage further thought and reflection.  This is not one of those stories and will undoubtedly leave the reader growling, chittering, wailing, hissing, and sounding very much like an angry badger.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney (J)

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs  

Betty G. Birney (Juvenile Fiction)

“Sometimes extraordinary things begin in ordinary places” and, according to 11-year old Eben McAllister, there is absolutely, positively NO place more ordinary than Sassafras Springs.  On this particularly hot July day, while Eben is buried in his book about the Seven Wonders of the World, his father offers him a deal:  find seven Wonders in seven days in Sassafras Springs and he will buy Eben a ticket to Colorado.  SEVEN?  Eben can’t imagine even finding ONE Wonder let alone seven.  But with a ticket out of town on the line, Eben is ready, willing, and able to look just about anywhere and everywhere to find them.

With folksy, down-home dialogue and quirky, lovable characters, Birney makes even an ordinary saw, a worn-down table, and a waterlogged bookcase true Wonders.  Her story is like a tall glass of cold lemonade and the best spot on the front porch:  refreshing, pleasing, and thoroughly enjoyable.  I found it bittersweet when I came to the last page of this book.  Having to say goodbye to Eben, his trusty dog, Sal, and the folks of Sassafras Springs was akin to leaving home for the first time.  But as Eben reminds us, when Columbus and Balboa set off to discover faraway lands, even they knew that it wasn’t “goodbye”, just “see you soon”.

I hope this little gem encourages readers to discover or rediscover the treasure that lies right outside their own doorstep, for sometimes the biggest Wonders are right in our own backyard.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.fab.lexile.com

 

The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill (J)

The Mostly True Story of Jack

The Mostly True Story of Jack   

Kelly Barnhill (Juvenile Fantasy)

In the town of Hazelwood, Iowa, everything is neat and quiet and predictable.  Everything, that is, except the deep purple house with its bright green door that sits on the edge of town.  It belongs to Clive and Mabel Fitzpatrick (they’re kooks) and will soon be home to their nephew Jack (he’s a nobody).  But something is happening in the town of Hazelwood.  Something is different.  There’s a buzzing sound that you can hear in the air and feel on the ground.  And there is a sweet smell all about.  Frankie Schumacher is the first to notice it, but he’s usually the first to know most things.  What Frankie doesn’t know is that this newcomer, a boy named Jack, is at the center of everything strange, weird, and disturbing that is happening…again.

Barnhill gives us a story that is full of magic, bravery, and friendship.  The plot gets a little confusing as the reader is provided cryptic clues through old diary entries and postings by Jack’s uncle—both contained in The Secret History of Hazelwood—in order to piece together the bizarre events not only occurring in the Fitzpatrick home, but also around town.  Also, the premise of the story seems a little faulty since we are led to believe that Jack’s character feels “invisible”; however, throughout the book and especially near the end, we see that he is actually being forgotten and not just simply ignored.  This feeling is actually more appropriate in conveying a sense of foreboding and trepidation as the action intensifies and Jack begins to realize the truth about the town and himself.

Overall, I liked that the main characters in this book were loyal, fearless, and chose decency over convenience.  Whether standing up to bullies or corrupted townspeople, they always erred on the side of right, regardless of the consequences they knew they would eventually face.  I do have a slight warning for younger readers or readers that are easily frightened.  There are a few creepy parts in this book where kids get sucked into the ground and have their souls taken so just keep this in mind.  All in all, The Mostly True Story of Jack is a book about trying to feel comfortable in your own skin, trying to fit in, and most of all, just trying to be true to yourself…or mostly true.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (YA)

Under the Mesquite

Under the Mesquite  

Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Young Adult Fiction)

Lupita knows that her Mami has a secret that she is hiding from her and her seven siblings.  She hears her talking with her comadres in their hushed words and sees their furtive glances.  Something is different.  Something is wrong.  Then Lupita hears the word that Mami keeps tucked behind closed doors…”cancer”.  Suddenly, Lupita has to deal with her mother’s chemo treatments, her best friend’s sudden ridicule, and her upcoming 15th birthday.  Through it all, she has her writing.  For a brief moment, Lupita is able to block out the world and find solace as she pours out her feelings under the sanctuary of her family’s mesquite tree.

McCall gives us inspiration through tragedy as she delivers a compelling story written entirely in free verse.  Although this is a quick read (a slow read is encouraged), the author provides an enormous amount of depth, detail, and emotion by using just a few words proving that less is indeed more.

I enjoyed seeing Lupita go between her homeland of Mexico and her current home in the United States.  McCall’s use of Spanish words throughout the book gives the story a richness that allows us to totally immerse ourselves in Lupita’s culture and world.  These two halves of her life are very different, but somehow fit seamlessly to give us a whole girl who is headstrong, caring, and mature beyond her years.

In the beginning of the story, a mesquite tree unexpectedly grows in the middle of Mami’s prized rose garden.  But over time, this intrusion is a welcomed and comforting presence.  Through pruning, the tree has grown to be quite lovely, but it is not its beauty that strikes Lupita.

“I envy the mesquite

its undaunted spirit, its ability to turn

even a disabling pruning

into an unexpected opportunity

to veer in a different direction,

flourishing more profusely than before”.

It would be wonderful if we were all just a little bit more like the mesquite tree:  growing stronger after being weakened, finding new opportunities through loss, and thriving wherever planted.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (YA)

It’s Tween and Teen Tuesday where we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Jacqueline Kelly (Young Adult Fiction)

Calpurnia Tate is 11 years old (almost 12!) and having quite the summer.  It’s 1899 in Fentress, Texas and her sole objective at the moment is staying cool…which is proving to be quite impossible.  Priorities soon shift when her brother Harry gives her a small, red notebook and tells her she can use it to record her daily observations.  You see, Calpurnia loves to watch things, and after she watches things, she has questions—lots and lots of questions.  One of those questions brings her to her grandfather who presents her with a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  This singular gesture not only marks the beginning of their relationship, but it also sets Calpurnia’s life in a direction that’s very different from the one her mother has planned for her.

I really enjoyed Calpurnia’s character—a girl ahead of her time who dismisses the notion that women can only be teachers, nurses, or wives.  Instead, she is eager to trade her knitting needles for a microscope and her cookbook for a science book.  Kelly gives us a strong and feisty heroine who loves, angers, disappoints, and surprises yet through it all, never loses her sense of self or what is most important to her.  I also loved seeing her relationship with her grandfather deepen as their shared love of nature and science draws them closer.  The author does leave a few unanswered questions at the end of the book which may frustrate some readers, but these loose ends are not enough to detract from a likeable main character and a charming, witty story.

Grandfather Tate once told Calpurnia, “It’s amazing what you can see when you just sit quietly and look.”   I hope The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate encourages all of us to disconnect from our devices long enough to reconnect with the beauty and majesty that surrounds us in the natural world.  All we have to do is sit quietly and look.

Rating: 4/5