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.

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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 Boston Girl

bostongirlby Anita Diamant
Read by: Linda Lavin
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Content: There are some mild swear words and references to drinking and smoking. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Addie Baum is the daughter of Eastern European immigrants, who came to American when the persecution became too bad back home. Addie was born in 1900 in Boston, and grew up in a world wholly different from that her parents, and even her older sisters (the youngest who was 14 years older than Addie), knew. It was a world where Addie went to school instead of getting married young and having babies. A world where she held a job and chose love for herself. A fascinating, modern world, but one that put her at odds with her parents — especially her mother — and the way of life they had always known.

I loved this one from the start. It begins as a series of reflections of an 85-year-old Addie in response to the question asked by her 22-year-old granddaughter: “How did you get to be the woman you are today?” The whole novel felt like a personal history, complete with asides that a grandmother would say in the telling. And while it covered Addie’s whole life, the focus was on her formative years from when she was 15 until she met and married her husband. The opportunities she had (because of the people she met), her struggles with family and religion and men, her jobs and the experiences she had because of them. It was a fascinating slice of life.

And the narrator was perfect. She caught that personal history vibe and ran with it; so very often I could almost see Addie, sitting in her living room, telling this story to an interested granddaughter. No, she didn’t do voices, though she had a good Boston accent overall, but I don’t think it was needed for this. The way Lavin read it was just perfect.

As was this story.

The Golden Specific

by S. E. Grove
First sentence: “Dear Shadrack, You ask me for news of the Eerie, and I can tell you that there is no recent news of them in the Indian Territories.”
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Others in the series: The Glass Sentence
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: It’s a long book, and it’s one of those that take some investment. Probably not for the younger end of the middle grade spectrum, even if it’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore. I’m actually wondering if these might do better in the YA (grades 6-8) section, with the Philip Pullman books…

I’ll be honest: I don’t really remember what happened in the first book. The good thing? You don’t really need to. There’s no real sum-up at the beginning (thank heavens!) but you get the sense, fairly quickly, about what’s going on. And Grove is nice enough to let us know what we need to know as the book progresses.

Which helps, because there are three story lines going here. One is Sophia’s continuing quest to figure out what happened to her parents 10 years ago. This involves going to restricted libraries and ending up across the Atlantic (accidentally by herself) in the Papal States, looking for the lost land of Ausentintia. (I read that Austen-tia every. single. time.) Her adventures there are weird and wild, and the way Grove messes with time, religion, and fantasy are quite mesmerizing. She makes new friends, particularly Errol and Goldenrod, who are fascinating additions to the world Grove has built.

The second story line is related: it’s the diaries that Sophia goes looking  for, the writing of her mother that Sophia was looking for. (This is a second in a trilogy, so there’s a lot of loose ends.) This was the least interesting part to me; yeah, I was curious about Sophia’s parents, but not especially invested in their journey, so to have the story I was interested in interrupted with this one was a bit annoying.

The third — and my favorite this time around — story line was that of Theo, who stays behind in Boston, and attempts to prove that Sophia’s uncle Shadrack didn’t, in fact, kill the prime minister. It’s a fascinating plot line, full of deceptions and intrigue. Additionally, it has the most intriguing characters; Theo’s new friend, Nettie, is the daughter of the police inspector, and absolutely delightful.

I don’t know if it’s as strong as The Glass Sentence was, but I do think that this will be a compelling series once it’s completed.

The Penderwicks in Spring

by Jeanne Birdsall
First sentence: “Only one low mound of snow still lurked in Batty Pederwick’s yard, under the big oak tree out back, and soon that would be gone if Batty continued to stomp on it with such determination.”
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Review copy intercepted when opening freight at my place of employment.
Release date: March 24, 2015
Others in the series: The Penderwicks, The Penderwicks on Gardham Street, The Penderwicks at Pointe Mouette
Content: It’s a bit more advanced than the younger end of the reading spectrum can handle by themselves, but it makes a wonderful read-aloud. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The Penderwicks are back! I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. So SO very happy. In fact, I sat down and devoured this book in one day, and then was immediately sad because I should have savored it.

It’s been four years since the last Penderwicks book, and the girls have aged appropriately. Rosalind is off at college, Skye is a senior in high school (as is Jeffrey) and Jane is a junior. That leaves Batty as a fifth grader, the oldest of the younger Penderwicks, her step-brother 8-year-old Ben, and their half sister, two year old Lydia. That’s a lot of responsibility for Batty, who is used to being the youngest. Add to that her beloved Hound’s death (six months prior), and Batty finds herself struggling this spring.

She does make some good discoveries. Their neighbor Nick Geiger has come home from a tour in Iraq, and he inserts himself in the lives of the Penderwicks with nothing but wonderful results. And even though Skye is having some issues with Jeffrey and Jane is surrounded by boys and Rosalind brings home an absolutely awful boy from college, Batty’s finding her own way.

The most wonderful thing about this book is that’s it’s just as good as all the other Penderwicks books. Birdsall is such a fantastic author, capturing the innocence of childhood as well as the more complex of emotions: frustration with being young, a bit of despair, a bit of helplessness. It’s a funny book — the Penderwicks are witty and wonderful — but it’s also one that tugged at my heartstrings and made me cry in the end.  It’s honest, and simple, and absolutely wonderful.

Belzhar

by Meg Wolitzer
First sentence: “I was sent here because of a boy.”
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Release date: September 30, 2014
Review copy downloaded from Edelweiss
Content: There’s some talk of teen drinking and pot smoking, and some swearing (including a few f-bombs; I didn’t count). But, because of the nature of the book — it’s just has a very “adult” feel to it, it will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore. I don’t think, however, it’s beyond the reach of an interested 7th- or 8th grader, though.

Jam — short for Jamaica — is falling to pieces. Her boyfriend, Reese, died, and so she has no real reason for living. After trying everything — pleading, therapy — her parents decide to send her away to a special boarding school for those with issues called The Wooden Barn. Jam is expecting to behave much the same way at this school as she has before: detached, uninvolved, not caring. But then she’s signed up for Special Topics in English and everything changes.

Special Topics is a teacher-selected class of only five students. They only study one author, and this semester it’s Sylvia Plath. They’re required to come to class, to discuss the works, and to write in their journals. But what Jam and the other students don’t realize is this: their lives are about to change.

At first, I loved this book. I like the idea of studying one author in depth, and even though I don’t know much about Sylvia Plath (I really ought to read her stuff), I was enjoying Wolitzer’s writing about it. I didn’t even mind the slight magical aspect of it: whenever the students write in their journals, they enter an alternate reality, a place where the worst thing hasn’t happened. I thought it was a little weird, particularly since I was expecting a realistic fiction book, but it worked for me.

However, the book fell apart for me at the end. Especially with the twist. (I’m not going to tell you what that is.) I do think, though, that it’ll hit the spot with it’s intended audience; I think a lot of my reluctance to go along with it is just age and experience showing.

And the writing is gorgeous. Wolitzer really does know how to turn a phrase. And much like Katherine Howe, I found myself thinking that I really ought to read some of Wolitzer’s adult stuff.

Not bad, in the end.

The Glass Sentence

by S. E. Grove
First sentence: “It happened long ago, when I was only a child.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing objectionable or scary. It is, however, nearly 500 pages and it’s small type and that can be intimidating. (A was initially intimidated. I think I’ve convinced her to read it.) It’s also kind of slow-moving, with a lot of tricky names, so probably not the best book for a reluctant reader.

I think the best place to start with this one is Megan Whalen Turner’s quote on the back cover: “Not since Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass have I seen such an original and compelling world built inside a book.”

That’s quite a lot for a book to live up to (MWT! Philip Pullman! Original! Compelling!) but you want to know something? She was right. So very, very right.

In 1799, something happened, and the whole world shifted. It came to be known as the Great Disruption, and what it did was cause different parts of the globe to be in different time periods. Europe was stuck in the middle ages, the Northwest Territory in a prehistoric ice age. What we know as the 13 colonies stayed in linear time, for the most part, though they never developed much farther than that. Past the Mississippi River and into Mexico is what is known as the Baldlands, a hodgepodge of raiders and outlaws, except for three cities which are known as the Triple Era, with people and creatures spanning 3000 years in the same place.

Pretty cool, no?

It’s no wonder that in this world explorers and map-makers are held in the highest esteem. And Sophie Tam’s uncle, Shadrack Elli, is one of the best. He’s been raising his niece ever since her parents — also explorers — disappeared. She’s learned to live without knowing about her parents, and she’s learned how to read the maps that Shadrack makes. So when he’s kidnapped, she’s really the only person who can save him.

The world is brilliant, and the use of maps and magic (of sorts, though kind of not really “magic” as you’re thinking about it; it’s more future techonology) are refreshingly unique. But, once the plot starts going (which, admittedly takes a while), it picks up and becomes one of those books you can’t put down. I was thrilled with the world, with Sophie and her friend Theo and their increasingly intense and urgent adventure. I thought that Grove captured an interesting balance between the older people — like Shadrack — and their expertise and the younger ones — like Sophie — who were able to see things in a new and different light. I loved the use of time and Ages and invented words; I haven’t seen this kind of  creativity in naming things since Harry Potter. I also loved that the “bad guy” wasn’t wholly evil. That while they did some morally questionable things, it wasn’t a pure black and white thing. There’s layers here: yes, it’s a middle grade fantasy adventure, but it’s also so much more.

I can’t wait for the sequel.