Enchantress of Numbers

by Jennifer Chiaverini
First sentence: “A piteous mewling jolts Lady Annabella Byron from her melancholy contemplation of the fire fading to embers though the evening is still young.”
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Content:

I picked this up because I think Ada Lovelace is the BEST, and there needs to be more about her. And so I was excited that Chiaverini wrote this historical fictional biography of her. Except. This wasn’t the biography I wanted.

This follows Ada Byron from her mother’s short marriage to Lord Byron through to… well… I don’t know because I didn’t finish it. I wanted to, I kind of liked what I was reading, but honestly? It wasn’t that great. It wasn’t bad. It was just long. And kind of boring. And I don’t know why I didn’t bail on it sooner. I guess I hoped it would get better. But, it didn’t, and even though I love Ada and think she’s a mathematical genius, I just didn’t like this book.

Oh, well. Can’t win them all.

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Strawberry Girl

by Lois Lenski
First sentence: “‘Thar goes our cow, Pa!’ said the little girl.”
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Content: It’s written in dialect, which might throw some readers off. It’s in the Newbery award section at the bookstore.

I remember reading this one when I was really young, maybe 2nd or third grade, when I was going through my pioneer stage. I was fascinated with old fashioned life, and the way settlers lived, and this one, though set in the early 1900s, fit that bill.

Birdie and her family have bought a house and land in mid-Florida, intending to start a strawberry farm and orange orchard. Their neighbors, the Slaters, who have lived on the land for several generations (though probably squatting, technically), have issues: they don’t like Birdie’s families uppity ways, their fences, their ambition. It’s only through long-suffering, hard work, and kindness that Birdie and her family make it through their first year,

Honestly, I think this one holds up pretty well. Lenski interviewed a lot of “Crackers”, original white settlers in Florida, and used their stories as a basis for this book, which gives it an understanding that would be missing if she hadn’t. I liked Birdie, her fire and her determination, and I was surprised at just how spiteful the Slaters were towards these outsiders. There’s also a strong class division running through the book — one I’m sure I didn’t pick up on as a kid — with Birdie’s family being able to afford nice things because they were disciplined. This plays into the “American dream” narrative — if you just work really hard, you’ll be rich — which I’m not sure is a good narrative to have around anymore. And the ending was surprisingly religious: you find God, you can be saved and change your evil ways. Even so, it was a sweet little book.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

by Elizabeth George Speare
First sentence: “On a morning in mid-April 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor.”
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Content: There’s some violence, but it’s off screen. It’s in the Newbery Medal section of the bookstore.

I adored this book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember how I got this book, or why I got it, but I do remember reading and re-reading it endlessly. In fact, my copy, which I still have, is quite battered. I’m knee-deep in a Newbery Medal section of my class, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to see if this story held up to my recollections of it (and if I could remember why I liked it so much).

Kit Tyler is in a precarious position: raised by her grandfather on Barbados after her parents’ deaths, she is left penniless and mostly without family after his death. So, she throws everything on traveling to America, to live with her mother’s sister, whom she’s never met, in a Puritan Connecticut settlement. For most of the book, it’s a fish-out-of-water story: Kit tries and fails to fit into this strict religious community. She’s flashy, she’s never worked (they had slaves; I found some of the dichotomy between the British slave-owners in the Caribbean and the land owners in America to be interesting), she, of course is always in trouble. But Kit’s growth arc in this book is significant: after meeting Hannah, a Quaker who is ostracized from the community because she doesn’t attend Puritan services and branded a “witch”, Kit learns that having friends and helping others really is the best thing. Oh, and then there’s Nat.

Actually, I think, in the end, it was the love story between Kit and Nat that I liked as a teenager. I liked the push and pull of their relationship, how neither of them quite figured out they were Meant To Be until it was almost too late. It was very satisfying, to say the least. The other thing I got out of this was that Puritans were Awful.  At least in historical fiction. They are quick to judge, closed-minded, insular, and set on being against everything that is different or not plain. I don’t think Speare set out to condemn them; they’re not wholly bad as a group and there are some redeemable characters. But as a whole, Purtians are definitely awful.

In the end, I’m not sure I liked it as much as I did when I was younger, but I do see why I liked it so much. And it’s a good book, overall.

All the Crooked Saints

by Maggie Stiefvater
First sentence: “You can hear a miracle a long way after dark.”
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Release date: October 10, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but younger kids might be interested in it.

The problem with this book is that the plot is really hard to describe. There’s a family in the southern Colorado desert, the Sorias, that have basically made a living performing miracles for pilgrims who come to their homestead looking for help. But, it’s much more than about the miracles. There’s a boy who comes looking for help (but not a miracle) and a few pairs of lovers, some who are new and some who have lost their way. In fact, a lot of the plot is about how to find one’s way back from being, well, lost.

It’s historical, set sometime in the 1960s (I had it initially pegged for contemporary, then set in the 1970s… so I was close), but it feels, well, set out of time.

Mostly, though, the best thing about this is, like many Stiefvater novels, the words. She just has a way of telling a story that sucks you in and won’t let you go. And this was no exception. The magic here was less “magic” and more magical realism; it felt like it really could happen, that it was a natural outgrowth of the story, and it made perfect sense.

I’m sure Stiefvater will get some push back for writing a story with Latin@ main characters, but honestly, I don’t think she used stereotypes at all. (Or at least, that’s the way I felt; I’m not a great judge of this.)  I loved all the characters, from the Soria family to the pilgrims, and I loved the way Stiefvater told the story. Everything just seemed to fit.

It’s really a wonderful story.

Audiobook: Beyond the Bright Sea

by Lauren Wolk
Read by: Jorjeana Marie
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Content:  There are some instances of violence that could be intense for younger readers. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Crow has lived her entire life on a small island in the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. She lives with the man — Osh — who found her, washed ashore in a small boat,  as a new baby.  Her history hasn’t bothered her, but something about being 12 has got her wondering where she came from. Her questions lead to a chain of events that involves pirates, lepers on Penikese island, and finding her family.

I’ll be honest: I tried this one in print. It didn’t take. I just wasn’t compelled enough by the writing or the characters to keep going. So when I saw that it was audio, at first I was hesitant. But, I gave it a try, and maybe it was right place/right time, or maybe it was the fantastic narrator, but this time it stuck.

I loved hearing about Crow and Osh’s spartan life, getting the feel of life on the northern islands. I loved going with Crow as she discovered the history of her family, and felt for Osh as he struggled with his own feelings (maybe that was just the adult in me reacting).  I loved learning the history (of sorts) of the leper colony on Penikese, and to just get a sense of the place and time. Wolk is a good historical fiction writer, though I’m not sure her work is best suited for kids. (Well, maybe those precocious ones.) Even so, it’s a lovely book, and one I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.

 

Audiobook: The Inquisitor’s Tale

inquisitorstaleby Adam Gidwitz
Read by the author and Vikas Adam, Mark Bramhall, Jonathan Cowley, Kimberly Farr, Ann Marie Lee, Bruce Mann, John H. Mayer, and Arthur Morey
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s a lot of poop and fart jokes, plus a bit of a running ass/donkey joke. It’s also a bit, well, long, and some violent moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it’d probably be good up through the 8th grade or so.

I’ll be honest here: I tried reading this one and I didn’t make it through the third chapter. It just didn’t grab me.

The story is this: in the 13th century there are three children who can perform miracles. And someone is asking about them, collecting their story. Told in stages by several people over the course of a night, it follows the children — Jeanne, a peasant girl who has vision; William, a super strong oblate; and Jacob, a Jewish boy with healing powers — how they met, their run from the church and then the king, with a showdown outside of Mont-Saint-Michel.

It’s a very religious story (which shouldn’t have surprised me, considering when it was set), but it also deals with race relations and bigotry and just oppression in general. I think audio was the way to go for me on this one. I loved that the different tale tellers had different narrators reading the tale, each giving it their own spin. It made the tale come alive for me. (Maybe this is one that’s better read aloud?)

So, I’m glad I gave it a second chance. It was worth it.

Audiobook: Victoria

victoriaby Daisy Goodwin
Read by : Anna Wilson-Jones
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Content: There’s some illusions to sex and scandal, but mostly it’s a pretty straight-up historical fiction. Good for those who are interested in England and/or queens and/or history. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I have always had a bit of a weakness for historical fiction when it comes to royalty. I ate up the Phillipa Gregrory books about the Tudors back in the day, and I’m sure there’s more than I’m forgetting. I’ve had my eye on this one since it came out back in November, mostly because the cover is so pretty (and we all know I’m a sucker for pretty covers). I didn’t quite know what to expect about the book, though.

For the most part, I enjoyed it. Taking place over the first year or so of Victoria’s reign, it deals with her conflicts with her mother and her mother’s “companion” Conroy, with learning how to govern (and her dependence on, and infatuation with which was heavily played up, Lord Melbourne), and with finding her feet. It ends just as she meets and marries Albert, so there’s very little of the Victoria she came to be.

But the thing that kept me listening was the narrator. She was FANTASTIC. All the perfect inflections for every character, and she kept me wanting to know more about the characters and the story. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this one in print; Goodwin is an excellent writer, and she knew how to balance the personal aspects of Victoria’s story with the political ones to keep it intriguing. But, listening to it gave it the push it needed for me to really enjoy the book.