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

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Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

Big Fish

Big Fish

Daniel Wallace (Adult Fiction)

Edward Bloom was born in Ashland, Alabama during the driest summer in forty years.  Edward knew he was destined for greatness…at least that’s what he always imagined.  He was to be a big fish in a big pond.  After all, wasn’t it his birth that finally brought water to his town’s scorched ground?  Weren’t people and animals inexplicably drawn to him?  Throughout his life, Edward would be a sailor, a successful business owner, and a true man of the world who also bought an entire town down to the last square inch.  Edward was also a husband, a father, and a friend to all.  But most of all, Edward Bloom was a myth.  His son, William, longs to be close to a father whose past is as vast and complicated as the current space between the two.  With Edward on his deathbed, can William distinguish fact from fiction so that he can better understand his father?  Surely stories of a two-headed geisha, a giant, and a mermaid can’t possibly be true…can they?

Daniel Wallace gives us a quirky and lighthearted story showing us the complex and messy relationship between a father and son.  This book is a quick read so only lightly scratches the surface regarding Edward’s inability or unwillingness to emotionally connect with his son.  All attempts at intimacy by William yield little more than a humorous story and a punchline and the reader shares in his growing frustration and apathy.  Edward explains to William that his own father was rarely around, but this fact doesn’t make it any less painful for William who is constantly at odds with a pithy metaphor or a ready one-liner.

Fathers are so many things to their sons or daughters: superhero, knight, prince charming, mentor, teacher, coach, buddy.  Like Edward, our own dads seem invincible, immortal, and a tad mythical.  Edward measured greatness through deeds.  William merely wanted a father who was an active participant rather than an occasional onlooker. And although laughter is said to be the best medicine, perhaps laughter is not the medicine, but it merely makes the real medicine go down a little easier.

Edward once said to William, “Remembering a man’s stories makes his immortal, did you know that?”  I have many stories from my father’s past—stories made up of fact and fiction that intertwine and entangle themselves like vines on a trellis.  Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the truth from fantasy, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter because you realize that even though your dad didn’t own a town or rescue a mermaid, he’s still pretty great because he’s YOUR dad and that alone makes him a pretty big fish.

Rating: 4/5

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War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace (YA Historical Fiction)

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

War and Watermelon

War & Watermelon    

Rich Wallace (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

If you were to rank boys based on “coolness”, Brody Winslow would be near the bottom…low-middle at best.  But things could be worse.  It’s August 1969 and his brother Ryan could STILL avoid the draft (if he just got off his butt), the New York Mets COULD win a game (if they just got off their butt), and Brody MIGHT be a starter on his football team (if he could just stay off his butt).  All in all, things are looking pretty good.  In less than a month, Brody will be starting junior high school and his brother has promised to take him to a farm in upstate New York for some hippie concert protesting the war in Vietnam.  That might be fun.  Big changes are coming and Brody is about to tackle them all…whether he’s ready or not.

Rich Wallace started his early writing career as a sports editor for various New Jersey newspapers and his talent shows in War & Watermelon where the football and baseball references abound.  But what’s really at the core of this tender and sentimental book is the special bond shared by brothers Ryan and Brody.  Unlike the competitive or jealous sibling relationships you find in some books, the Winslow boys are fiercely supportive, loyal, and kind to one another.  As Ryan’s 18th birthday approaches—along with his draft status—Brody senses his brother’s increasing anxiety and is not sure how to comfort him: “I should get to bed; we’ve got another game tomorrow night.  But I wouldn’t be sleeping anyway, so I’d rather stay here with Ryan.  He’d been there for me.  Teaching me how to shoot a basketball or cook a hot dog.  Taking me to the movies, even when he goes to the drive-in with Jenny.  Giving me things like a Giants jersey he got too big for, or a flashlight when I was four and scared that there was a monster in my closet.  Now he’s scared.  I’m scared, too.  We might as well sit here together.”  There’s also a tight-knit relationship between Ryan, Brody, and their father.  Nights sitting up cheering on their Mets while eating olives and saltines or laughing out loud to re-reruns of The Honeymooners are clearly enjoyed and treasured by all three.

War & Watermelon is a humorous and delightful book about one young man trying to make a difference and one boy trying to make it through the day.  It’s a little slice of Americana served with grape soda pop and a bag of pretzels in front of a black and white TV.  It isn’t dramatic, suspenseful, thrilling, or riddled with angst.  Some may even go so far as to call it trite or boring.  But as Brody Winslow once said, “We wander around for an hour, shoot some baskets, then go home.  Yeah, it was boring, but that’s life.  Boring isn’t always so bad”.  I would even venture to say that boring can be great…now pass the olives and turn on the TV!

Rating: 4/5

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…and now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold (J)

And Now Miguel

…and now Miguel    

Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)

“I am Miguel.  For most people it does not make so much difference that I am Miguel.  But for me, often, it is a very great trouble.”

Twelve-year-old Miguel is a Chavez and in the Chavez family there is always one thing—sheep.  To raise sheep is the work of the family.  Wherever you find a Chavez man, you’ll find a flock of sheep.  Miguel lives near Taos, New Mexico and is straddled between two brothers who have it easy: little Pedro is small and has all that he wants and big brother Gabriel is old enough that anything he wants he can get.  But being Miguel is not so easy.  What he wants, what he truly desires, is to go to the Sangre de Cristo mountains where the Chavez men take the sheep to graze each summer.  But year after year, Miguel is left behind.  How can he prove to his father that he is finally ready for this responsibility?  But since he is only Miguel, he knows that this will not be an easy thing to do.

…and now Miguel is based on actual people whom Krumgold spent time with and got to know.  Hearing him tell Miguel’s story and his desire to prove himself worthy to a father he adores and respects is intimate and personal.  The reader deeply connects with Miguel as he attempts to be needed and longs to make a difference.  Miguel’s biggest obstacle is not his will or desire, but simply time.  As his mother once said to him, “To become something different from what you are, it takes more than being strong.  Even a little time is needed as well.”  How often do we find ourselves pursuing opportunities that we know we aren’t ready for?

This story has so many positive messages and relatable situations for young readers (aged ten and above).  Unfortunately, it does lag quite a bit near the end when Miguel and Gabriel discuss the strengths and weaknesses of making a wish, which is actually the two coming into their own spiritual awakening through the recognition of Devine intervention and providence.  This was a weighty and lengthy dialogue between the two that could have been greatly condensed and had the same effect.  Although this is a pivotal moment for the two brothers, the momentum of the story ultimately suffered and was never able to fully recover.

Miguel reminds us that things don’t always go the way we wish or plan for life always seems to get in the way somehow.  Big surprises or unexpected announcements are never delivered or received in the way in which we hope.  Miguel is a deeply devoted boy who, in the end, realizes that his life—his fate—is not in his control.  He must rely on his faith in knowing that everything will work out as it should.  His mother and father understand this, Gabriel understands this…and now Miguel will understand this and will realize that by him just being Miguel has already made a great difference.

Rating: 4/5

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Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas    

Oscar Hijuelos (Adult Fiction)

It was around Christmas when a young foundling named Edward was given a home, a family, and a last name.  His adoptive father, Mr. Ives Senior (a foundling himself), managed a printing plant and gave his new son two brothers and a sister, provided him with a good amount of encouragement, and—most importantly—taught him how to pray.  While growing up, Edward basked in the cultural richness that surrounded him in New York during the 20s and 30s.  By the 1950s, his creativity landed him in a Madison Avenue ad agency where he worked, thrived, and would eventually retire.  His simple and humble life would involve marriage, children, delight and despair and through it all, Edward will come to realize that the life he imagined for himself is very different from the life that he’s been given.

Oscar Hijuelos delivers a beautifully written novel that is vividly detailed and rich in historical insights and context, yet I found myself disappointed and wishing that I had enjoyed this book more.  First, it was difficult connecting with the main character.  Hijuelos often interjects various characters’ backstories throughout the book.  This was helpful in creating history and perspective, but the constant interruptions ultimately sacrificed intimacy for insight and greatly hampered the flow of the story, which leads to the second point.  It was extremely challenging to stay immersed in the story.  Rather than focus on a central theme, this book read more like a series of random thoughts, insights, and memories.  Hijuelos simply went off on one tangent too many and the book becomes a regrettable product of information overload.

This book mainly centers on New York and spans over several decades.  In that respect, it was interesting to see a city in constant transformation and evolution during the cultural, political, and social movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  I also appreciated the spiritual issues that Hijuelos covered without being overtly religious.  We see Edward’s struggle to reconcile his religion with his faith and the eventual effect it has on his physical and mental health.  But through life’s tragedies and triumphs, Mr. Edward Ives remains a sentimental, kind, and honorable man, father, husband, and friend who realizes that Christmas isn’t his story, but it’s His story—the babe born in a manger who would die on a cross.  Although Edward often finds himself grappling with a life full of uncertainty and anguish, through his faith and belief, Mr. Ives finds peace in knowing that his afterlife is secured and in good hands.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Ives.

Rating: 3/5

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