The Night Garden by Polly Horvath (J)

the night garden

The Night Garden

Polly Horvath (Juvenile Fiction)

Despite the war overseas, life was fairly predictable and peaceful in the spring of 1945 for the family at East Sooke Farm.  Twelve-year-old Franny Whitekraft had her writing; her mother, Thomasina (Sina for short), had her sculpting; and her father, Old Tom, had his gardens—his many, many gardens.  There was the English garden, herb garden, Japanese garden, Italian garden, kitchen garden, statuary garden…but perhaps the most mysterious and closely-guarded garden of all was the night garden.  That garden Old Tom kept locked up nice and tight.  So, days floated by with little fanfare until one day, Crying Alice (that’s Mrs. Alice Madden to you and me) showed up on the Whitekraft doorstep and dropped off her three children: Wilfred, Winifred, and Zebediah.  You see, her husband, Fixing Bob (who does maintenance on the Canadian Air Force’s special plane), is going to do something stupid and she simply has to go and talk some sense into him.  Now, if three new houseguests weren’t enough, just throw in a UFO, ghost, psychic, several mysterious letters, mermaids, and a missing plane and you’ve got a recipe for anything BUT a predictable and peaceful spring.

This is the second book by Polly Horvath that I’ve had the pleasure of reading (the first being The Canning Season) and she continues to amaze and please with her witty dialogue and amusing situations.  Horvath not only entertains her young readers, but she manages to educate them as well.  She’s an English teacher’s dream as she dishes out a veritable smorgasbord of delicious words to savor:  presaged, traversed, bereft, contiguous, compeers, and ilk.  Aren’t they scrumptious?  She also delights us with an assortment of quirky characters that we feel inexplicably drawn to—not in spite of their flaws and rough edges, but because of them.

The Night Garden is a non-stop, heart-thumping thrill ride that will excite and enthrall readers of all ages.  It is a story of family and a love that is blind, slightly deaf, and a little bit thick, but love amongst family is often like that.  The Night Garden also provides us with many valuable lessons—from Miss Macy’s advice on being prepared (“Always wear clean underwear.”) to Franny’s philosophy on self-sacrifice (“Well, we were all put on this earth to suffer.”).  But perhaps it is Old Tom himself who best sums up the greatest lesson of all, “Never, ever, ever have houseguests!”  Old Tom is seldom wrong.

Rating: 4/5

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

 

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote (J)

A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory     

Truman Capote (Juvenile Fiction)

There was something special about that late November morning: the air lacked the songs of birds; the courthouse bell sounded cold and clear; and the once-empty hearth boasted a blazing fire.  All of these meant only one thing—it was fruitcake weather!

A Christmas Memory is Truman Capote’s earliest memories of his life in a small rural Alabama town.  Up until the age of ten, he lived there with a family of distant and elderly cousins.  One cousin, in particular, he was especially fond of and considered her to be his best friend.  She called him “Buddy”, after her former best friend who died in the 1880’s, and he referred to her as simply “my friend”.  Capote’s book is filled with his personal heartwarming memories of Christmas—beginning with the inaugural baking of the fruitcakes (which includes a charming visit to one Mr. Haha Jones) and followed by searching for the perfect tree, hanging wreaths on all the front windows, and making gifts for the family.  Capote’s vivid descriptions and eloquent prose allow us to smell the fruitcakes baking in the oven and luxuriate in the warmth emanating from the home’s stone fireplace.

On Christmas Eve night, “my friend” confesses to Buddy her desperate desire to give him a bicycle for Christmas, but her inability to do so for lack of money.  “It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want,” she laments, “but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have.”  During this time of year, we seem to be inundated with an endless barrage of commercials, movies, and television shows that all seek to remind us about the true meaning of Christmas through animated animals, complicated romantic triangles, or splashy musicals.  I’m grateful for Mr. Capote for sharing his personal Christmas memory and for showing us in a loving, compassionate, and quiet way that we should be thankful not for the gifts that lie under our tree, but rather for those who gather around it.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

The True Gift: A Christmas Story by Patricia MacLachlan (J)

The True Gift

The True Gift: A Christmas Story    

Patricia MacLachlan (Juvenile Fiction)

Lily and Liam are off to Grandpa and Gran’s farm for Christmas.  They always go in December and then wait for Mama and Papa to join them on Christmas Day.  Lily likes the sameness that this time of year brings:  the walks into town, the trip to the lilac library, and helping Gran make cookies.  But when her brother spots a white cow standing alone in a snowy meadow, Lily’s predictable holiday is suddenly threatened.  “Do we know if she’s lonely?” Liam asks his sister.  “She’s a cow,” replies Lily.  “Cows don’t care.”  But Liam cares and because of this, Lily knows that White Cow is bound to ruin everything…especially Christmas.

From the author who delighted us with Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan gives readers another book filled with compassion, love, and family.  She introduces us to Lily, a young girl who finds herself angered by her brother’s selfless desire to help a creature that finds itself quite alone on Christmas.  Fortunately, Liam’s determined desire to bring comfort to this lonely creature is enough to eventually whittle down Lily’s stubborn defenses until at last, she surprises herself by whispering to White Cow one night, “Don’t worry.  We’ll take care of you.”  Those few words set in motion a turning of Lily’s heart, as well as the fate of another soul in need of rescuing.

The True Gift shows us that any small act of kindness isn’t truly small at all.  By giving us a simple story of a young girl, a small boy, and a lonely white cow, MacLachlan reminds us that Christmas is about giving from the heart and that the act of bestowing even the slightest bit of charity to another being is perhaps one of the truest gifts of all.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 12/4/2018

* Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

 

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

The Story of Arthur Truluv

The Story of Arthur Truluv

Elizabeth Berg (Adult Fiction)

Arthur Moses has had lunch with his wife Nola every day for the past six months (missing only just one day, which is not bad for an octogenarian with no car and bad knees).  He departs the bus with his folding chair and bagged lunch, sits beside her headstone (she’s passed away you see, but “a promise is a promise”), and tells Nola about the day’s events or complains about their neighbor, Lucille (who considers the world to be her classroom, BUT happens to make THE most wonderful desserts).  While Arthur gains comfort through his daily cemetery visits, 18-year old Maddy Harris seeks escape.  Maddy is a budding photographer and artist (who is rather pretty despite that awful nose ring), but she is viewed as an outsider by her high school classmates and therefore endures relentless ridicule and abuse.  At the graveyard, she finds peace, and it is here where she and Arthur meet and begin a very unlikely friendship.

Berg delivers an endearing, amusing, and pleasant story about three flawed individuals who, like most of us, merely want to be accepted, useful, and loved.  Each one of them holds a piece to the others’ happiness and when they are placed together, they fit to form a quirky yet beautiful puzzle.  This is a delightful read that is surprisingly uplifting and inspirational, despite the underlying themes of death and loss.

Early in the book, Maddy mentions that her English teacher taught her one of her favorite words: hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning yearning and grief for lost places.  The Story of Arthur Truluv provides the reader with some glimmer of promise and hope that grief is never permanent and what is lost will once again be found.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

 

The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg (YA)

The Year We Were Famous

The Year We Were Famous

Carole Estby Dagg (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

It’s 1896 and the Estby family is just one auction away from losing their family farm.  They must either raise more than $1,000 or lose everything.  Inspired by her daughter Clara’s story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who traveled around the world in 72 days, family matriarch Helga begins writing letters seeking a financial sponsor who will pay them to walk from Washington to New York.  When a publisher in New York City offers them $10,000 to make the cross-country trek, the game is officially…so to speak…afoot.

Based on the true story of 17-year old Clara Estby’s walk across America, Carole Estby Dagg gives us the ultimate mother-daughter road trip story.  Using newspaper articles and journal entries, Dagg reconstructs the 4,600-mile journey made by her great-grandmother and great-aunt.  Since the story is based on actual events, the author does take several artistic liberties when presenting us with Helga’s and Clara’s adventures.  I really loved this book until I read the Author’s Note at the end, where I learned exactly what embellishments were made.  I was disappointed when fact and fiction were revealed, but understand how these particular fabrications gave Clara a little more depth of character.  However, the incredible journey these two women embarked upon made these particular elaborations unnecessary.  Helga and Clara survived highwaymen, lava fields, floods, heat, snowstorms, near starvation, personal injuries, and dehydration.  Along the way, they also met Indians, political dignitaries, and managed to make a positive impact toward the advancement of women’s suffrage.

Early in the book, Clara mentions that the only thing she has in common with her mother is the gap between their front teeth.  By the end of their multi-million step journey, Clara realizes that despite their differences, the bond between mother and daughter may be pulled, flexed, and twisted, but will never be broken.

Rating: 4/5

The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars (J)

The Summer of the Swans

Betsy Byars (Juvenile Fiction)

Fourteen-year old Sara Godfrey is having the worst summer of her life.  She hates her orange sneakers, she has the biggest feet in school, and don’t even mention her nose.  “I just feel like nothing,” she tells her sister.  But all that changes when her ten-year old brother, Charlie, goes missing.  Suddenly, Sara realizes what is truly important and what really matters.

Sara not only struggles with her own adolescent issues, but is dealing with an absentee father, meddling aunt, and a brother suffering from a mental impairment.  Byars accurately captures and conveys the angst, anger, and anxiety that most teens endure and provides readers with a realistic sense of Sara’s desperate desire to fit in, to be liked, and to be accepted.  More than just a coming-of-age book, The Summer of the Swans also provides an insight into Charlie’s mind and reveals his own desire for stability and security.  Byars shows us how love requires no words and perhaps is more accurately spoken not through the mouth, but by the heart.

Rating: 4/5

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan (YA)

Tween & Teen Tuesday

Every Tuesday, we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book

Homeless Bird

Homeless Bird (YA)

Gloria Whelan

Thirteen-year old Koly is arranged to be married and must leave everything and everyone she loves behind.  When fate intervenes, she finds herself alone in a strange city.  Her favorite poem tells about a flock of birds that fly day and night, except the homeless bird. It always flies to somewhere else.  With no money and no hope for the future, where does this homeless bird fly now?

Written in the first-person narrative, Homeless Bird gives us a story of courage, hope, determination, and love.  In Koly’s own words, the reader experiences and feels firsthand her sense of loss, betrayal, heartache, and despair.  Whelan’s love for Koly shows through her compassionate writing and wonderful storytelling.  In the end, she gives us a heroine that not only flies, she soars.

Rating: 5/5