Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (YA Historical Fiction)

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann   

Karen Cushman (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung

After the death of her gran, Margaret “Meggy” Swann is carted from Millford Village to London and unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of her father, Master Ambrose, the local alchemist.  Meggy is none too pleased with her new home: heads mounted on sticks and placed on a bridge, the smell of fish and sewage everywhere, and streets slick and slippery from horse droppings.  Ye toads and vipers!  What kind of place IS this London?  Between a mother who was pleased to see the back of her and a father who assumes she is a beggar upon their first introduction, Meggy has found herself in a rather unenviable position.  She is crippled, penniless, and friendless…unless you count her goose, Louise.  But Meggy is stronger than she thinks and with the help of a cooper, a printer, and a rather smitten player, she’ll not only save a life, but she’ll manage to save a soul as well.

From her first utterance of, “Ye toads and vipers”, I fell in love with Meggy Swann.  She is scrappy, sassy, resourceful, impish, loyal, and brave.  She is disabled (suffering from what we would today recognize as bilateral hip dysplasia), but doesn’t seek sympathy, pity, or charity.  In a time when deformity and illness were viewed as a direct judgment from God, it would have been easy for Meggy to become bitter from the taunts and jeers unmercifully thrown at her by villagers both young and old alike.  While in Millford Village, she was able to stay somewhat isolated and protected within her mother’s alehouse; however, in London her lameness is on full display and it is at this moment when we see Meggy’s pluck and spirit begin to emerge.  No longer will she be the meek victim of unfair slurs and prejudices.  While her father is busy transforming metals in his laboratorium, Meggy is experiencing her own transformation into a strong, proud, and confident young woman who refuses to let her circumstances define or limit her.

This story is set in 1573 London and Cushman successfully transports readers to the Elizabethan Era through her usage of period-appropriate language.  This requires having to adjust to the frequent occurrences of words such as naught (nothing), certes (certainly), mayhap (perhaps), belike (very likely), and sooth (truth), but given the age this book targets (12 years and above), the acclimation should be quick and painless.

There are so many lessons that one could glean from this book, but perhaps the most poignant was one that Meggy learned from a flightless goose: “Even Louise had given the girl something, the knowledge that one did not have to be perfect to be beauteous.”  And that is something worth remembering, be ye toad or viper.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to 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 

 

Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.

Ghost on Black Mountain

Ghost on Black Mountain  

Ann Hite (Adult Fiction)

“Mama warned me against marrying Hobbs Pritchard.  She saw my future in her tea leaves: death.”

Nellie Clay was only 17 when she married 25-year old Hobbs Pritchard.  With just a feed sack of clothes, some trinkets, and a childhood full of memories, she leaves the only home she has ever known and moves to Black Mountain with a man she barely knows and the ghosts he has spent a lifetime creating.

Ghost on Black Mountain is a haunting tale of abuse, power, greed, and fervent love.  There is not a soul on Black Mountain that hasn’t been negatively impacted or affected by Hobbs Pritchard, and his toxic anger and avarice blanket the mountain like mist on a crisp autumn morning.  Hite does a credible job in conveying the torment and fear unleashed on a tightly-knit mountain community by a man consumed by evil and jealousy.  The author keeps the story interesting by having different female characters narrate and share their own histories and perspectives.  Near the end of the book, just when you thought you were safely out of the woods, Hite throws in an unexpected twist by introducing an unknown character.  Rather than stall the story’s progression with this sudden interruption, this shift actually adds to the story’s mounting tension and brings us ever closer to an inevitable tipping point.  As this character’s story is slowly unraveled, we become uncomfortably and painfully aware that the ghost on Black Mountain may never truly rest in peace.

Ghost on Black Mountain is Hite’s first novel and she gives readers a truly gripping and all-consuming story of good versus evil and the price one is willing to pay for redemption.  Like the ghosts on Black Mountain, this story and its characters will linger in your mind and lurk in your memory long after the last page is turned.

Rating: 5/5

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

 

 

The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli (J)

The King of Mulberry Street

The King of Mulberry Street

Donna Jo Napoli (Juvenile Fiction)

“There was a saying that no one starved in farmlands.  My city, Napoli, was surrounded by farmlands, yet we’d been hungry for months.”

Nine-year old Dom was illegitimate, poor, but loved.  His mother called him “mio tesoro – my treasure”, and one day she took her beloved son to the docks and stowed him away on a cargo ship headed to a place where dreams come true—America.  Before sending him away, Dom’s mother gave him one strict instruction: “Your job is to survive.”  Alone, with only a new pair of shoes in his possession, Dom struggles for daily survival in this country with its strange languages and customs, all the while searching for a way to get back home.

This is a work of fiction, but Napoli says that she was inspired by the story of her paternal grandfather who, like Dom, came to New York as a young boy.  Napoli sets her story in Manhattan in 1892 and gives us a main character who is scrappy, kind, generous, and honest.  Moreover, he manages to hold true to his moral values and religious convictions (he is a Jewish Italian) despite his dire circumstances and outside influences.  The reader can only admire and marvel at his resilience and convictions.

When recalling his life back in Napoli, Dom often remembers the proverbs his Nonna often said.  One such proverb was, “You get, you give” and Dom takes this to heart as we see him always giving throughout the book.  Whether he’s returning an act of kindness or helping another in greater need, he shows us that even the smallest act of goodwill often has the greatest impact.  Napoli gives us a beautiful story of trust, loyalty, and friendship.  As Dom begins to carve out a life for himself in America, he reminds us of the importance of being true to oneself and that family isn’t defined by bloodline or name, but by love and devotion.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Invisible Wall (Biography) by Harry Bernstein

The Invisible Wall

The Invisible Wall

Harry Bernstein (Adult Biography)

“It was a quiet, little street, hardly noticeable among all the other larger streets, but what distinguished it from all others was the fact that we lived on one side, and they on the other.  We were the Jews and they were the Christians.”

Harry Bernstein describes growing up on a street in the English mill town of Lancashire—one of two sides of the same street separated by an invisible wall, but bonded by poverty.  He writes with fearlessness and bittersweet honesty about his selfless and strong mother who tries to make ends meet with the money left over from his father’s constant gambling and drinking.  The reader is taken on an emotional rollercoaster that goes from tragedy and despair to triumph and delight.  We cringe at his father’s heartlessness and disinterest in his own family, while we hold out hope for his mother who continues to wait for that elusive steamship ticket to America.

At times, Bernstein’s story is painful to read as dream after dream and opportunity after opportunity are unmercifully shattered.  If this was a work of fiction, one could justifiably harbor resentment toward the author for his unusually cruel treatment of his characters.  Knowing that this story is true makes it all the more unforgettable.  This book truly took my breath away and kept me engaged from the very first page to the last.

The Invisible Wall made Harry Bernstein a first-time author at the tender age of 96.  After reading his incredible and compelling story, all I have to say is, “Better late than never, Harry.”

Rating: 5/5