Review of Pony, by R. J. Palacio, read by Ian M. Hawkins

Pony

by R. J. Palacio
read by Ian M. Hawkins

Listening Library, 2021. 7 hours.
Review written November 29, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Wow. If you read the author’s book Wonder, you won’t be surprised that she can tell a good story, but this one is completely different from that one – but completely captivating.

We’ve got a 12-year-old narrator named Silas who lives alone with his Pa outside a small town in 1860 in the west. His Pa is a bootmaker who has figured out how to print daguerreotypes on paper. One night, some rough men come to their house and take his Pa away with them, saying they want him to help them out with a job. They bring a pony for Silas, but Pa refuses to go with them if they take Silas. He tells Silas to stay in the house and not let anyone in.

When the pony comes back a couple days later, Silas takes it as a sign that he should go find Pa. Sometime in there we discover that Silas has the ability to see ghosts. And he’s got a ghost companion, a sixteen-year-old boy he calls Mittenwool. Mittenwool tries to convince him to stay home like Pa told him, but Silas is determined to help Pa.

Fortunately, they come across a federal marshal named Enoch Farmer who is on the track of a gang of counterfeiters. They establish that the men he’s after are the ones who took Pa. The marshal helps Silas navigate the wilderness, have food to eat, and follow the track of the counterfeiters. The marshal doesn’t know how much Mittenwool helps them stay on track. But when they’ve found the counterfeiters’ lair, an accident means Silas is going to need to get help on his own.

This story had me not wanting to stop for anything. The part after the dramatic confrontation is a little long, but kids do like loose ends being tied up, so I can’t really fault the author for that. And I was happy to know how things turned out for Silas.

This is a wonderful yarn with danger and adventure and a kid you can’t help but love, a kid who’s got the smartest and best Pa in the world. And the help of a remarkable pony.

listeninglibrary.com

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Review of Long Road to the Circus, by Betsy Bird, illustrations by David Small

Long Road to the Circus

by Betsy Bird
illustrations by David Small

Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 246 pages.
Review written November 27, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

What a delightful book! Set in 1920 in Burr Oak, Michigan, twelve-year-old Suzy of the legendary grip wants to find a way to escape the family farm and Burr Oak, where generations of her family always seem to come back.

When Suzy decides to follow no-good lazy Uncle Fred before dawn to find out what he’s up to, she’s surprised to discover he’s wrangling ostriches for a retired circus performer. They want to tire out the ostrich so it can be harnessed up to a surrey together with a horse for the town parade.

Then Suzy gets the bright idea that if she rides the ostrich instead of Uncle Fred, her boring summer will get a whole lot more interesting – and she can learn a skill that might get her out of town. Not every kid can ride an ostrich!

But it takes some negotiating and some clever planning to keep her parents allowing her to miss the morning chores. If they find out what she’s up to, she might even have to enlist the aid of her annoying older brother.

Here are some words from Suzy as she’s planning to follow Uncle Fred in the morning:

It takes true skill to delay doing your chores. And my impatient brother Bill simply had no idea how to do it right. He usually tried to skip out after breakfast to run and play with the baby lambs or the goats or whatever it was he wasn’t supposed to be doing. But if Bill had taken pointers from Uncle Fred, like I did, he would have realized that the first rule of chore skipping is to skip breakfast too. ‘Cause once they’ve seen your face and weighed you down with food, you’re less fleet of foot. They’ll catch you before you can take two steps outdoors.

The second rule is to offer complete and utter bafflement when confronted. When Bill got collared in an attempted escape, he always just lied outright. I’d shake my head in wonder as he constructed some fabulous falsehood to cover up his crime, making it far worse for himself the further in he went. Uncle Fred took a much smarter tack. Whenever he’d return from wherever it was he’d been and my daddy started asking where he’d gone, Uncle Fred would have this look of complete bafflement on his face. Like he’d never even grown up on a farm or known how it worked. He’d offer some bland apologies to Daddy for inconveniencing him, then join everyone for lunch. Usually after that he’d go to work with the rest of the crew, working longer than the rest of them to make up his lost time, but next morning it would start all over again. He’d be gone before breakfast, Daddy swearing under his breath, the rest of us pretending not to notice, most of all Uncle Fred’s wife and baby.

Suzy’s irrepressible spirit and determination come through on every page, and it doesn’t take us long to be sure she’ll figure out how to ride an ostrich and also how to use that to ride away from Burr Oak some day.

David Small’s illustration style is perfect for gangly ostriches and add wonderfully to the spirit of the book. The page where Suzy first tries to ride an ostrich is especially delightful.

The back story of this book – appropriately told at the back – is also rather wonderful. Betsy Bird had a family story about her grandmother’s no-good uncle who skipped out on farm chores in Burr Oak, Michigan to visit a retired circus performer and learn tricks to teach the farm horses. That circus performer, Madame Marantette – who shows up in this book – really did set a world record by driving a surrey pulled by an ostrich and a horse together.

But the really crazy part of the back story is that illustrator David Small currently lives in the very same house where Madame Marantette lived and kept her horses and ostriches. When Betsy told him about her project, he thought it wasn’t so much a picture book as a novel, and we are all in his debt.

This book reads as a wonderful yarn about a girl looking to do outrageous things to make a name for herself. The fact that there’s a kernel of truth at its core makes it all the more fun.

Fuse Eight blog
davidsmallbooks.com

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Review of Sweeping Up the Heart, by Kevin Henkes

Sweeping Up the Heart

by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow Books, 2019. 183 pages.
Review written January 9, 2020, from a library book

Amelia Albright wanted to go on vacation during Spring Break like other families do, but her father, an English professor, didn’t want to, even though this year of 1999 his college was having a break at the same time. So Amelia ends up going to the clay studio every day to make objects with clay. This time, the objects she makes turn out to be rabbits.

But there’s someone new at the clay studio this year, a boy named Casey. Casey’s staying with his aunt, who owns the studio, while his parents are making a last effort to keep from getting divorced.

Casey is twelve years old, the same age as Amelia, and he has some fun ideas, like inventing names and stories for people who pass the shop where they are having lunch. But when Casey gets the idea that a strange lady looks like she could be Amelia’s mother – when Amelia’s real mother died when she was a baby – Amelia can’t get that idea out of her head.

This book tells about a week in the life of a lonely girl who finds that art and new friends can bring pleasant surprises, even in familiar places.

kevinhenkes.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

Cloud Cuckoo Land

by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, September 28, 2021. 623 pages.
Review written September 14, 2021, based on an advance reader copy.
Starred Review

If you enjoyed Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I think that Cloud Cuckoo Land is even better.

The title comes from Aristophanes’ play, The Birds, talking about a utopian city for birds located in the clouds. This book is threaded through with a story, supposedly written by Antonius Diogenes and only recently recovered in a damaged copy, about a shepherd named Aethon who wishes to become a bird so he can travel to this mythical city. Along the way, he has unpleasant adventures, including being transformed into an ass, before he can reach his goal.

Small fragments of Diogenes’ story are threaded through the book, along with stories from five other times. One of those times is February 20, 2020 at the Lakeport Public Library. (I wonder if originally the date was during the pandemic when libraries were closed. This was sidestepped by making it just before that date.) Another time is inside and outside Constantinople in the 1400s. Another time is the future, on the ship Argos traveling to an exoplanet from earth. And then we get backgrounds of two characters who we’ve seen in the library. One of their stories begins in 1941, and another begins in 2002.

All these characters and times end up having a relationship with the story of Aethon, as well as parallels with his story. The weaving together of the stories is beautiful.

I’m now more accustomed to reading children’s books, so starting such a long book was daunting. But once I got off to a good start, the result was rewarding. I’d like to read it again, because even glancing at the Prologue, I see some details I’d missed the first time around.

It’s hard to even describe this book. Is it historical? Is it contemporary? Is it science fiction? What we do have is an epic tale about the power of story and the importance of dreamers. Read this book! You’ll be glad you did.

Here’s how the main part of the book opens:

He escorts five fifth graders from the elementary school to the public library through curtains of falling snow. He is an octogenarian in a canvas coat; his boots are fastened with Velcro; cartoon penguins skate across his necktie. All day, joy has steadily inflated inside his chest, and now, this afternoon, at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday in February, watching the children run ahead down the sidewalk – Alex Hess wearing his papier-mâché donkey head, Rachel Wilson carrying a plastic torch, Natalie Hernandez lugging a portable speaker – the feeling threatens to capsize him.

And the first fragment of Aethon’s story, Antonius Diogenes relating the discovery to his niece, goes like this:

. . . how long had those tablets moldered inside that chest, waiting for eyes to read them? While I’m sure you will doubt the truth of the outlandish events they relate, dear niece, in my transcription, I do not leave out a word. Maybe in the old days men did walk the earth as beasts, and a city of birds floated in the heavens between the realms of men and gods. Or maybe, like all lunatics, the shepherd made his own truth, and so for him, true it was. But let us turn to his story now, and decide his sanity for ourselves.

The caption on the story of Aethon is a fitting introduction to the book:

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.

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Review of Da Vinci’s Cat, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Da Vinci’s Cat

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
decorations by Paul O. Zelinsky

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), May 2021. 278 pages.
Review written March 6, 2021, from an advance reader copy sent by the author
Starred Review

I’ll admit it – time-slip novels aren’t really my thing. My logical mind gets caught up in the contradictions inherent in changing the past, so that I can’t properly enjoy them. However, because this one was written by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, who won Newbery Honor the year I was on the committee with The Book of Boy, I was able to squelch my logical objections and enjoy this book. I suspect most kids will enjoy it, too.

In this book, we meet Federico II Gonzaga, eleven years old in 1511, in Rome as a hostage of Pope Julius II for his family’s good behavior. But he was treated well in Rome, became friends with his Holiness, and got to pose for the painter Raphael, as well as maybe see some of what Michelangelo was doing while painting the Sistine Chapel.

Then one day, there’s a strange large box, a sort of closet, in a deserted hallway, made by Leonardo da Vinci. A kitten comes out of it.

Federico has fun with the kitten, but it dashes back into the box – and disappears. The next night, it comes out of the box again – but now it is a fully grown cat.

Federico’s adventures really begin after the cat disappears again – and comes back with a stranger, wearing strange clothes. This man is terribly interested in Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s sketches, as well as seeing the paintings in the Vatican Palace “when they are new,” whatever that means. The man promises Federico a wonderful sweet called “chocolate” in exchange for more sketches.

But after a couple of adventures with this man, Part II of the book begins in the present day with a girl named Bee, who is house-sitting with her moms at a place in Brooklyn. When Bee finds a cat outside killing birds, she takes the cat to the house next door. The old lady there stares at her in wonder – and shows Bee a drawing of herself – drawn by Raphael. So later, when Bee sees a large box in that house in a hidden study, the reader is not surprised when she follows the cat into the box that looks like a wardrobe and finds herself in Federico’s time. And she’s got a quest – some things to set right.

Like I said, if you don’t let your mind get hung up on how this would actually work, but just accept that of course Leonardo da Vinci could have invented a time machine, the story is a whole lot of fun. I love the details of life in Rome in 1511 and what Federico thinks is normal, and how Bee can slip into that and pass for a page. Did you know that Michelangelo smelled terrible because he didn’t bathe? And that he and Raphael had a rivalry going? And that they hadn’t tasted chocolate in Rome in 1511?

A fun story of a cat moving through time and bringing two kids together across centuries.

catherinemurdock.com
greenwillowbooks.com

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Review of A Cloud of Outrageous Blue, by Vesper Stamper

A Cloud of Outrageous Blue

by Vesper Stamper

Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 307 pages.
Review written October 12, 2020, from a library book

Vesper Stamper’s illustrated young adult novels are amazingly evocative. Let me say that again: They’re illustrated young adult novels. The illustrations add a dreamlike quality to the book, as they did in What the Night Sings.

This one was set in medieval England about an orphaned girl who recently lost everything and was sent to a priory – just in time for the plague.

This book had lots of death and dying, so despite the dreamlike quality, it wasn’t exactly pleasant reading. I also have a prejudice against fanatically evil religious characters, and this book had a couple of those. So by the end, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I thought I would at the beginning. I didn’t quite follow all the plot choices either.

But as a book talking about how a large group of women lived together in the middle ages, with information about illuminating manuscripts, the book was lovely. Especially before they started dying.

Our orphaned main character was a synesthete who saw colors when she heard sounds. That sort of thing was thought to be demonic visions at the time, so she’d learned to keep silent about it. But it also gave her extra love for art and illuminated manuscripts.

vesperillustration.com
GetUnderlined.com

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Review of Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Without a Summer

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tom Doherty Associates (TOR), 2013. 381 pages.
Review written June 25, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

My sister Becky gave me this book years ago (Thank you, Becky!), but alas, like so many non-library books that don’t have a due date, I didn’t get to it right away. But the time was finally right when I signed up for the 2021 Jane Austen Summer Program, a four-day virtual symposium on Jane Austen, and Mary Robinette Kowal was one of the speakers, giving two wonderful talks about putting fantasy into your Jane Austen adaptation.

At the conference, I also learned that the year 1816 really was a year without a summer. The note at the back says that after a volcano erupted in the West Indies, the ash disrupted weather everywhere, and there was snow in Washington DC in July. In fact, Mary Robinette was able to determine the weather in London for the days covered in this book. I had assumed when I started reading that it must have been a side effect of magic – so I was quick to believe that people would have looked for magic users to blame for the strange weather, which turns out to be a key point in the book.

This book is another Austen-like story, with magic. The author does write each book as a stand alone. In this third volume of the Glamourist Histories, Jane’s sister Melody needs to find a husband and is running out of options in the country, so Jane and her husband take Melody to London while they work on a glamural for Lord Stratton.

The author worked in ideas from Jane Austen’s Emma as Jane tries and fails to be a good matchmaker for her sister. But there’s a lot more going on as well. Sir David’s despicable father wants to renew their relationship and meet his wife – but there are some plots afoot. And the coldmongers are getting blamed for the wintry weather in summer – even though that is not how glamour works. It all builds to a big climax that puts Jane and her husband in danger, with Melody’s happiness also at stake.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Mary Robinette’s sessions at the Jane Austen symposium tremendously, and gained a new appreciation of her craft in writing these books. She wanted to write a fantasy novel similar to the books Jane Austen wrote – where the fate of the world is not at stake, but instead the happiness of a few people. She wanted magic, but in order for it to be one of the womanly arts, it had to be magic that didn’t do much. The “glamour” in these books is all about illusion. And it’s typically done by women – except for professionals glamourists, who of course are men. So Sir David working with his wife is breaking ground and defying convention.

Another thing I found out when I looked in the back of the book is that my sister-in-law Laura (then Plett) is acknowledged! She does calling for English Country Dances, and gave the author some tips about how the dances were done in Regency England. So it was fun to come across her name in the back of my book.

This series is lovely and highly recommended. I hope this will give me the motivation to set aside the recently published books I need to read for Capitol Choices and read a couple more Austen-with-fantasy books purely for my own enjoyment. There are two more in the series, and it’s high time I caught up.

maryrobinettekowal.com
tor-forge.com

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Review of We Are Not Free, by Traci Chee

We Are Not Free

by Traci Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 384 pages.
Review written November 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 National Book Award Finalist

We Are Not Free is a novel about Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated during World War II. An interesting and effective choice made for this novel is to present the story from multiple perspectives. Every chapter has a different perspective.

We start with a 14-year-old kid in a community of Japanese Americans living in “Japantown” in San Francisco. We hear about the older teens he looks up to who will end up being viewpoint characters as the book goes on.

The book starts three months after Pearl Harbor when people of Japanese descent are getting targeted by racists. It continues as they have to sell off their possessions, because they’re only allowed a little bit of luggage in the slightly-refurbished racetrack where they’re taken next. It goes on through the war as the people in the camps have to decide if they will declare their loyalty to a government that removed their rights and volunteer to fight in the war.

By using so many perspectives, we get a broad view of what happened to different groups of people, including those who went on to fight in the war and those who refused. We learn about various levels of inhumane treatment, from the horrific conditions for those who were deemed a threat to the smaller indignities such as happened to those set loose with $25 and having to find a new place to live.

The teens have widely different attitudes. Many are angry. Some just want to make the best of things and move on with their lives. All of them encounter grave injustices, and seeing the situation from so many different eyes helps the reader understand the whole thing better.

And, yes, there are a lot of painful things that happen. This isn’t a feel-good book, but it is a book that shows you many sides of a terrible historical injustice perpetrated by our own government. I wish this book weren’t as timely as it is.

tracichee.com
hmhbooks.com

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Review of The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker

The Hidden Palace

by Helene Wecker

Harper (HarperCollins), 2021. 472 pages.
Review written July 14, 2021, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

I loved The Golem and the Jinni so much, I preordered this book as soon as I heard that there was a sequel. I think you’ll enjoy this more if you’ve read the first book (and you definitely want to read it!), but even though it had been eight years since I read the first book, the important parts came back to me as I read.

Like the first book, I’m tempted to call this Historical rather than Fantasy, because the historical details of life in New York, both the Syrian neighborhoods and the Jewish neighborhoods, ring true. This comes after the crisis of the first book, and talks about what’s next for the golem and the jinni, now they’ve found each other. How do you build a life when your lifespan goes far beyond your human neighbors?

Meanwhile, we find out about two other creatures like our heroes: There’s a golem whose master is the young orphaned daughter of a rabbi, hiding in an orphanage. And across the sea, there’s a jinniyeh, outcast from her own kind because she can tolerate touching iron, but who hears about the iron-bound jinni who lives across the sea.

Chaya the golem still hears the thoughts of all around her, so she discovers when they notice that she’s not ageing. She’s going to need to make a new life for herself. Ahmad the jinni is much less deliberate. When his partner dies, he becomes obsessed with making a palace out of metal inside their warehouse. And when someone who doesn’t need to eat or sleep becomes obsessed, he can truly withdraw from the world.

This is another rich tapestry of a book, dealing with two people who aren’t actually human, but who are full of nuance. Can they stay in each other’s lives, or are they too different? This book feels completely realistic as it explores this question. We also see how each one has become part of a community, and lives all around them are touched by their existence. And we’ve got further thoughts about what it means to be human from the perspective of those who, technically, are not human at all.

This is a wonderful follow-up to an amazing story.

harpercollins.com

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Review of Sticks and Stones, by Patricia Polacco

Sticks and Stones

by Patricia Polacco

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 48 pages.
Review written January 27, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Patricia Polacco’s books are long for picture books. Lots of pages, and lots of words on each page. These are not for the preschool storytime crowd, but they are for young elementary school proficient readers or for elementary school classrooms, people who appreciate pictures to go with the thoughtful text.

It’s a story of bullying. But also a story of friendship. As in many of her books, Patricia tells a story from her childhood in first person. One year, she spent the school year with her father in Michigan instead of with her mother in California. But her summer friends abandoned her, and the boy who was nice to the new girl was called Sissy Boy by the bully. The bully called Patricia, Cootie, and their other friend, Her Ugliness.

But the book shows the beauty of their friendship. Continued bullying, but fast friends. It turns out that Sissy Boy secretly takes ballet classes and loves ballet, and Her Ugliness makes beautiful kites and costumes from hand-painted silk.

The book tells the story of their friendship and culminates in a stunning ballet performance by Patricia’s friend Thom. But what really packed a punch for me was the author’s note at the back saying that now, more than fifty years later, Thom has retired as the artistic director of the American School of Ballet, and Ravanne (“Her Ugliness”) lives in Paris and has retired after an incredible career as a fashion designer.

I love the message this gives to kids that so often, bullies are just plain wrong.

PatriciaPolacco.com
simonandschuster.com/kids

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