Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Youth Classic Review: I Capture the Castle


Another middle grade (or YA) classic review.
Title: I Capture the Castle
Author: Dodie Smith
Publisher: Little, Brown, 1948, 343 pages.  I actually read an ebook version.
Source: Open Library (on-line library resource)

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra lives with her family in a crumbling castle in England, where they struggle to make ends meet with no visible means of support.  Her father is a writer who can't seem to write a second book, and she, too, has some aspirations to writing.  Thus, the "journal" she keeps of what turns out to be a crucial period in their lives.
I found the story both engaging and trite at times, sometimes at the same times.  The author did manage to avoid the obvious ending I saw coming from the mid-point, which made for a pleasant surprise.  The style is dated, but not excessively so, and the idea is original.  Characters are fresh and unique, well-drawn even through the eyes of the rather naive narrator.  This is a love story, but only sometimes.  The rest of the time it is a coming-of-age story, and sometimes just a jolly good yarn.  Overall, this classic holds up well.

The age of the protagonist and the subject matter (love as well as other life issues) makes this more YA than middle grade, but the circumspect writing of another time (a time when a girl of 17 wasn't a sophisticated adult) makes it acceptable for any age. It's an interesting read for the sake of the historical style and context.   It may be of as much or more interest to adults who remember reading it or similar books long, long ago, rather than to children, though any child or teen who read it will get a glimpse of a vanished world.

Full Disclosure: I checked I Capture the Castle out of my (virtual) library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, June 23, 2014

Non-fiction review: 12 Years a Slave


Title: 12 Years a Slave
Author: Solomon Northrup 
Publisher: Penguin, 2013.  Originally published in 1853.
Source: Library 

Given the publicity the movie got, I doubt I need to say much here.  Solomon Northrup was born a free man in New York State, and lived there until I think his late 20s, when he was lured to Washington by a promise of work, drugged, kidnapped, and sold to a planter in Louisiana.  Twelve years later he managed to get word out to the right people, and was rescued. He wrote this narrative shortly after regaining his freedom.

Being somewhat familiar with the narrative styles of some of Northrup's contemporaries, I expected to find this difficult to read.  It wasn't, except in the emotional sense.  Northrup has a very direct way with the narrative, and tells his story simply, allowing it to grip the reader by its own power.  He makes every effort to be fair in his narrative (he gives the men who lured him from home much more benefit of the doubt than I do--I have no doubt they were part of the plot), but he also pulls no punches.  Slavery was a huge evil, slaves were not happy being slaves, and he insists that his readers understand that.  It's hard to imagine anyone reading this and not getting it, and in fact his narrative and others like it contributed to the anti-slavery movement that led to the Civil War.

Seeing this unflinching depiction of what slavery did to both slaves and masters gave me a much better understanding of the difficulty the country, and especially the South, has had in overcoming that legacy.  Men and women denied all chance at education, told constantly they are less than human, and worked like beasts, all too often unsurprisingly seemed capable of little thought or reason.  But Northrup makes it clear that the men and women who believed their slaves were less than human not only were at fault for what they did to those slaves, physically and psychically, but that they themselves were rendered less human by their beliefs.  Slavery was an institution that destroyed both slaves and slave-holders, and Northrup show that it doesn't take a college education and a century of perspective to see it.

I'd recommend this to anyone over the age of about 14.  There are hard truths in this book, and truths every American, at least, should look in the face.  Plus, it's very well written and communicates those truths elegantly.

Full Disclosure: I checked 12 Years a Slave out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

YA Review: The Talent Seekers


Title:  The Talent Seekers
Author: Jemima Pett
Publisher:  Princelings Publications, 2013.  168 pages
Source:  Smashwords purchase

Humphrey is a guinea pig with no past, and it's not clear if he'll have a future.  He's hiding in the woods, trying to figure out how the world works, when he finds himself falling in with other outcasts and loners.  At White Horse Castle, he may find what he needs, and where he's needed--if White Horse king Benson can fight off the incursions of Lord Coleman of Castle Deeping.  Humphrey has a lot of exciting adventures, and gradually learns who he is and where he belongs, in a tale with a fair amount of bloodshed and a touch of the paranormal (which is starting to look normal in the world of the Princelings).

This book is set in the world of the Princelings of the East, and intersects with just a few places and characters, but stands alone very well.  The level of tension and danger is ratcheted up a bit from the other books in the series, leading the author to give it a "PG-13" rating, with which I largely agree (though it is NOTHING like as deadly and dangerous and scarey as, say, the last several Harry Potter books, which are happily devoured by amazingly young children).  (There is nothing in the way of what we euphemistically call "adult situations" in the book as far as I recall).

I found the story riveting--it cost me some sleep, as I forged on to find out what happened next.  Just exactly what and who Humphrey is, and who and what his enemies may be, unfolded gradually, with just enough clues to keep me jumping.  One thing I did find: Humphrey first appears in the Prologue to The Princelings and the Lost City, and I went back and re-read that to get a better grip on what was up with him.  It tells us some things that are never directly revealed in this book (so get it and read it too!).

As always the writing is clean and clear and the editing and proof-reading top-notch.  The world is well-created and well-presented, and Humphrey is a hero we can all root for.

For all fans of the Princelings, or adventures with a touch of the paranormal, who can handle a little gore.

Full Disclosure: I bought my copy of The Talent Seekers with my own money and of my own volition, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer posting

I want to let my loyal fans know that I'm going to be away from the internet much of the next six weeks, and while I have set a number of posts to post automatically, I won't necessarily be around to respond to you, or to post as much as I usually do!  But if you leave a comment I will respond eventually!

And I'll try to post a bit from along the way. . . you never know when and what may pop up!

Have a great summer and I'll see you in August!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Flash Fiction Friday: Gorg and the Phoenix

Another Friday (well, Thursday), another Flash Fiction!  Chuck's in Phoenix (AZ), so he challenged us to write about a phoenix.  And up popped Gorg, my favorite troll!  For other installments in the Saga of Gorg, check here, and scroll down to find Gorg.  It clocks in at 953 words including the title, comfortably under our 1000-word limit. 

Gorg and the Phoenix

Gorg Trollheim stumped through a devastated land, and whistled as he went.  It was a strange sound, for the troll’s stone lips didn’t lend themselves to whistling.  Somehow he managed it anyway.  Gorg was simply pleased to be on his own, away from the cities of men, and far from the castle of King Celery the Halfwit.

Gorg had wandered far from his home valley on a quest to track down the man behind the slaying of several of his kin.  Now Duke Bale the Artichoke Hearted was dead, along with his pet sorcerers, and Gorg was on his way home.  Pulgrum Stonelump had left the City of Celestial Celery with Gorg, but had since decided to visit kin in the larger troll homeland, known as Goblin Valley.  Gorg came from the less well-known troll home of White Rocks, and it was to that land he now returned.

White Rocks lay closer than he liked to the home of the late Duke Bale, and Gorg moved cautiously, or as cautiously as a giant entity made primarily of stone could move.  He also took a detour through the Stone Desert to avoid the late Duke’s Valley of the Baleful Stones.  Gorg needed no water, only stones to crunch at mealtimes, so this detour suited him well.  And there was no one to be offended when, tiring of whistling, he burst into the grating noise he called song.  Troll song sounded more like the crash of falling rocks than the melody of birds.

It was there, in the heart of the Stone Desert, that Gorg encountered the strangest bird he’d ever seen.  The large bird sported a crown of scarlet feathers, and its plumage shimmered with a multitude of ever-changing colors.  Gorg watched the bird soar skyward from its roost, seeming to touch the sun before swooping back earthward.  Fascinated, the troll settled himself to watch.

Hours later, the phoenix sank once again to its roost, exhausted by the sun-dance.  Even the feathers seemed to have leached their color into the sun, for it seemed now to be a uniform reddish brown, and Gorg saw nothing of the brilliant colors that had first caught his eye.

The troll didn’t know if this bird of myth and mystical powers could speak, but it seemed only right to acknowledge the performance, so he applauded gently.  The sound of rock cracking on rock echoed off the hills as he beat his hands together, and the bird turned to fix him with the stare of a dull eye.

“It was a beautiful dance,” Gorg said.

“It is my last.”  To Gorg’s surprise, the bird spoke a clear answer.  Unsure what else to do, he nodded his great stone head.  The bird’s feathers were growing less brown and more red.

“In the moment of dying, a phoenix may speak to a mortal,” the bird added.

“I am honored.”  Aware that something was happening here that was not to be missed or misinterpreted, Gorg pulled a small flask from his belt.  Uncorking it, he took a swig of the potion that quickened his wits and his speech far beyond the normal lot of trolls.  It was partly because of the potion that Pulgrum had left him, he knew.  The other troll was uncomfortable with Gorg’s rapid thought-processes.

Now Gorg was glad to be ready to understand what he was told, as the phoenix went on.  “I die to be reborn.  One whom you distrust is also a phoenix.”  The bird had become wholly crimson, and its voice began to falter.

“What?!”  Gorg’s mind leapt through the possibilities and he disliked the conclusions he reached.  “You don’t mean—”

The phoenix made no answer.  Feathers now a brilliant crimson, it began to steam and smoke.  Gorg watched, unable to tear his eyes from the bird.  As the setting sun touched the horizon, the phoenix burst into flame, and was reduced to a heap of multi-colored ashes.  Fascinated, knowing what would become of the phoenix, though not sure when, he rooted himself to the spot and continued to watch the ashes.

Nothing happened.  It grew dark.  Gorg considered moving on, but the darkness was complete, and he was in no hurry.  Being more than half stone, Gorg knew how to be still.  He made himself comfortable, and passed the night in considering the words the bird had spoken.  It circled in his mind with the final words of the djinn he had met and dismissed not far from King Celery’s castle: “I told B—”

Had the Djinn being trying to say “I told Bale?”  There was no one Gorg distrusted so much as Duke Bale, though the man should be dead, presumably scraped off the pavements of the courtyard beneath his castle window and buried.  Bale had jumped rather than face five angry trolls.  Had the djinn been sent by Bale, before or after death?  And was the phoenix now telling him that Bale might yet live?

Through the hours of darkness Gorg digested these thoughts, along with a few light but satisfying rocks he picked up for his dinner.

When the first rays of the sun crossed the rim of the valley and touched the pile of ash that had been a phoenix, the pile stirred, peeped, and shaped itself as a fledgling.

“Welcome back,” Gorg said.  The bird said nothing.  A half hour later the bird, now near full-grown, took wing, feathers gleaming in a multitude of colors as it soared high and swooped low, then flew off to the distant peaks.

Gorg, his thinking completed, gave a last longing look in the direction of his home.  Then he turned and began to walk toward Bale’s dukedom.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2014

Goblin Valley

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Wonder, by R.J. Palacio


Title: Wonder
Author: R. J. Palacio
Publishing info: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.  313 pages.

August Pullman was born with extreme facial deformities.  At age 10, after being homeschooled all his life (due to his medical issues), he enters school for the first time.  It's supposed to be easier because everyone is starting middle school together.   But things are never easy when you look different, especially when you look that different.  He and his family and classmates have a ways to travel before anyone can see Auggie as just another 5th-grader.
This is a moving and important book, less about disability (August doesn't have any lack of abilities, he just looks very, very unusual) than about difference.  Different is frankly the worst thing a kid can be after about age 6.  Using the start of Middle School (in his case, 5th grade) and the entrance into school for the first time makes for a convenient frame, as it's a time when kids struggle with all kinds of differences and realities.  But people of any age can go through a similar process of registering difference, dealing with it consciously and carefully (or reactively and hurtfully, as the case may be), until it ends up as the least important aspect of the person.

One of the things that makes this book so strong is that not only do we get Auggie's viewpoint, which says so much about how he copes with his looks and people's reactions, but sections of the book are written from other points of view as well.  In many ways, the best section is that told by Via, Auggie's older sister, who is just starting high school.  She is 4 years older than he is, so she doesn't really remember life without him, and she loves him dearly.  But she's human, and sometimes she wishes things were different.  Different so that she could be more important in the family, and (to her intense shame) so that she didn't have to let anyone at her new school know she has a little brother who is "disfigured," a word she hates.  The way Via and other characters talk about their divided feelings a mixed reactions to Auggie allows them to be real people, even while they are people who rise above themselves.  And, ultimately, the author lets almost all the kids rise above their initial rejection of anything different, which may not be completely realistic but is the model we all want.

Recommendation: For everyone.  Seriously.  We all need help in seeing the world through the eyes of others, and in dealing with differences.

Full Disclosure: I checked  Wonder out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review: Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well

18114091Title: Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well
Author: Nancy Atherton
Publisher: Viking, 2014.  278 pages.
Source: Library

When the village recluse dies and his nephew shows up from Australia to settle the estate, strange things begin happening in Finch.  Naturally, it's up to Lori Shepherd and the dead but not departed Aunt Dimity to sort it all out.

As with the last couple of Aunt Dimity books, this is a very mild mystery with no corpse, no danger, and minimal sense of any urgency to deal with the problem.  The result is a sweet story, but not one that I would call a mystery.  I assume that this has been a deliberate move on the part of the author, after venturing into some more dramatic territory a few books back.

I prefer my mysteries to have a little more mystery to them, and it is conventional to provide a corpse.  So although the story is a fun, quick read, and I'm hooked enough on Lori and the rest of the denizens of Finch to keep reading, I'm not entirely happy, either.  Not many of the books have actually involved corpses, but most manage to muster up a bit more peril than this one, and more of a puzzle to solve.  I also found most of the resolutions ion this book a bit too predictable, including the "big surprise" at the end.

For those who are hooked on the series.

Addendum, Jan. 3, 2015: I have just listened to the audio book narrated by Teri Clark Linden, and I have to say that I found the narration irritating. Several women were given rather puny voices that I didn't think went with them at all (especially Emma), and there was a curious hesitation in the speeches of characters that I disliked. I'd say to give this one a miss.

Full Disclosure: I checked  Aunt Dimity and the Wishing Well  out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Middle Grade/YA Review: Traveler in Black and White


Title: The Traveler in Black and White (Princelings of the East Book 4)
Author: Jemima Pett
Publisher: Princeling's Publications, 2012.  190 pages.
Sourece: ebook won in giveaway

Publisher's summary: "In the fourth book in the Princelings of the East series, Lord Mariusz of Hattan narrates, in his own Chandler-esque style, how he came to explore the world on the end of the time tunnel, and why he adopted the pseudonym Hugo in the first place."

The comment about "Chandler-esque" is spot on.  This book is for older kids, more of a PG-13 sort of thing, though references to sex are pretty oblique and will go over the heads of younger kids.  The level of violence is a bit higher than in the first three Princelings books, too.  That warning out of the way, this is a very engaging story, told by a rather American Hugo, a.k.a. Mariusz of Hattan (Manhattan, anyone?  Just guessing. . . .), who is trying to learn his way around a strange world and make a buck.

The story takes us back ten years in the world of the Princelings, so that the characters from the other books are much younger (a very young Victor is a total charmer), and some we have grown to love don't show up at all (like Fred and George).  The story is fast-paced, adventurous, and has just a touch of the supernatural.  I wasn't sure at first I liked that (just a taste thing), but Ms. Pett handles it with her usual skill, and there is nothing in the story that isn't necessary.

In a departure from the earlier books, Hugo tells his own story in the the first person, and his hard-boiled attitude lends to the fun.  This is definitely not a series that is giving us cookie-cutter books, but each addition has been my new favorite, and this one was no exception.

For any readers old enough to cope with some violence and not to be put off by the implication that Hugo philanders a bit.  Tweens up, with, as usual, as much or more appeal to adults as to the children.

Full Disclosure: I won The Traveler in Black and White in a giveaway, with no expectation from the writer or publisher for anything.  I offer here my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mystery Review: Ash Child, by Peter Bowen

For today's review, I bring you a very fast-moving mystery from an author I really enjoy (even though hints of his politics make me suspect that if we were locked in a room together I'd be tearing his hair out and kicking him in the shins).  So. . .

Title: Ash Child
Author: Peter Bowen
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2002.  256 pages.
Source: Library

It's fire season in the Wolf Mountains of Montana, and Gabriel Du Pre is worried.  As if the high fire danger weren't enough, some people start turning up dead.  And then the mountains catch on fire.  Du Pre and the rest of the cast of colorful and unique characters have their work cut out for them.

Peter Bowen's Gabriel Du Pre mysteries are fast-moving, with a touch of humor that keeps the grimness from ever getting out of hand.  Bowen paints a vivid picture of Metis culture (I'm not competent to judge how accurate that picture is), and the linguistic quirks permeate the story.  The patios that Du Pre speaks is almost telegraphic, and that brevity and understatement carries over even into the narration.  It's contagious, too--I find myself imitating the style after I've been reading for a while.

The writing style makes this a much shorter book and faster read than the 256 pages would suggest, and the plot moves along and a brisk pace from crisis to crisis.  The insights and revelations about who did what and why are never overly explained, and there is a certain air of mysticism emanating from the shaman Benetsee and spreading to the whole narrative.

Bowen's work isn't to everyone's taste, I know.  But if you like mysteries that strongly evoke a western setting and have fully realized characters with unique lives, a touch of humor, and well-plotted puzzles, you may well enjoy Gabriel Du Pre.

Full Disclosure: I checked  Ash Child  out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."