The Water Seeker, by Kimberly Willis Holt

Born with a gift that he tries to hide, Amos struggles through life with the knowledge of his water-seeking ability. His Pa was a “dowser” as well, but he thought it was a curse, tying him to his work instead of the mountains where his true calling lay as a trapper. So Amos stuffs his skill way down, trying to forget so he can be like other boys.

Except, how can he? The water both calls to and terrifies him. How can you live a life that you yourself have torn in two?

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This book had a crazy amount of potential. Seriously. But living up to the expectation of the description is easier said than done.

The one thing I could tell about this book: the author was in love with it. She was in love with her characters so much, she couldn’t drop any ideas that came into her head. What I mean to say is this: there was too much that happened in that story. The overall plot could have been summed into maybe half as long as the book actually was. In essence, she didn’t want it to end, and she couldn’t let anything go. If I was the editor, I would have ripped out whole chunks and then flung it back at her.

Typically, the reason a book is long is because one of two things needs to happen: a. lots of plot! Or b., serious character development. In this book, I felt like it was neither; it was just filled with lots of….stuff. You could say it was plot, but instead it was just hopping from one random Western-type story to the next. His childhood takes forever to come to an end by the time they hit the Oregon trail. At that point, he should have developed lots and lots of character, but instead he is a sort of vague and generic boy.

I think the idea of a character needs to be explored by the author. It felt like she thought that character meant all this stuff that was on the outside of the character, instead of digging to the heart of the issue. Amos could have struggled with extreme loneliness, depression, abandonment, trust issues and fear of a whole slough of things. Instead the author decided to give him talents and outward random oddities like birds following him and natural artistic ability. Those things do not set Amos up for a triumphant ending by wrapping up his internal struggle full circle. It sets up the ending to be evident and clear from the beginning, thus being less climactic and meaningful.

I would have preferred to see this book structured out a little more thoughtfully, and given a major edit before publishing.

A side note: kudos to Will Patton the narrator! Switching from a Southern accent to British with ease is no small feat. We really enjoyed his voices and creative voices.

UPDATE: This post was mostly finished before I finished the book, but the ending was so badly wrapped up and killed any tension that might have been building by pulling a “Ten Years Later”….. This was going to get a 3/5, but now it is 2/5. It was so bad we were all laughing as the narrator goes into the credits.

Overall Rating: 2/5

Violence: 3/10

Language: 2/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 3/10

Audience: ??? The beginning was awfully rough for a children’s book. Maybe 12 and up?

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The Many Lives of John Stone, by Linda Buckley-Archer

Stella Park (Spark for short) has found summer work cataloging historical archives in John Stone’s remote and beautiful house in Suffolk, England. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and her uncertainty about living at Stowney House only increases upon arriving: what kind of people live in the twenty-first century without using electricity, telephones, or even a washing machine? Additionally, the notebooks she’s organizing span centuries—they begin in the court of Louis XIV in Versailles—but are written in the same hand. Something strange is going on for sure, and Spark’s questions are piling up. Who exactly is John Stone? What connection does he have to these notebooks? And more importantly, why did he hire her in the first place?

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I picked up this book on the “new Teen release” shelf, mostly being intrigued by the cover. Well, and the description, which turned out to be a little misleading. I actually thought the book was going to be super cool and built up this whole plot line before reading it. Now that I know that that is not what the book is about, I can use it myself if I ever wanted to. Yay! Except, I didn’t pick up the book so I could evolve my own plot, I wanted the book to be about what I thought it would be about. And it wasn’t.

It felt like the book lacked substance. Spark was about the most boring person in the world, and had no motives, interest, or any other part in the story except to being an outside person trying to understand the inside lives of a group of people who seem to be stuck in the past.

The premise of this book was good. There was a lot of potential to being a mystery story, except the author blotted out all the mystery by telling you everything at the beginning. Snore. Honestly, I actually didn’t finish the book. I got about halfway through, and then flipped to the end to see what happened in the ending. Why was I not surprised? A plot twist should be, well, a twist, not something you saw coming fifty miles away.

The writing was also severely choppy; it felt like the author’s first novel. In the first paragraph about Spark, she is saying goodbye to her mummy; the second paragraph she is sitting on a train thinking insignificant thoughts; the third paragraph she is in New York City and seeing her brother; the fourth paragraph she loves New York and thinking more insignificant thoughts. A lot of stuff was soooo dry; if I had been the editor I would have thrown it back at the writers face with big “X” marks over chunks of the first few chapters.

My sister and I have this character test. If you took anyone else in the whole world and gave them the same set of choices, would they have done the same exact things? 1. If you answered that there were no questions asked in the whole story, then you have got a lot of plot and ideas but way not enough character development; those types of stories are ones where the character is swept into the action without any choice. 2. If the story presented complex questions but the character has an interesting backstory that conflicts or decides which they answer, then the story has a crazy amount of promise, but at that point authors often lack plot. 3. And then there are stories which often have a little bit of both, but the questions asked are sort of one-track, like yes or no, but even though this sounds a bit shallow it is these stories which often have the best balance of plot and character.

The Many Lives of John Stone perfectly describes the first example: Spark isn’t really asked any questions at all and is sort of just there as a narrator, BUT in order for this story to have worked, it would have needed a huge amount of both mystery and action. There wasn’t enough of either for the story to be a favorite.

The Hunger Games gives one good example of the 2nd type of story; while I don’t particularly find Katniss to be a complex character (most life and death questions are simple in this case), she does make one choice at the end of the first book that is a little more complex. During most of the story, she is given yes or no questions, such as, “would you give up your life to save your sister”; while this may seem like a hard question to ask, it still is a yes or no answer. However, at the end of the Hunger Games, when Katniss and Peeta are the last two contenders and are told they must kill each other, Katniss makes a more complex choice. The basic question to most people would be, “do I kill Peeta or not?” But Katniss chooses to look at the basic question in a deeper way and finds a solution that requires backstory and a small amount of emotional understanding for the reader.

Harry Potter, in general, is a mixture of the first and third example. Most of the time, he isn’t give any questions but is thrown into a situation without a choice, or is given simple, easy questions. Example: He lives with his hated Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, who mistreat him horribly. When a giant of a man shows up on your doorstep telling you you are a wizard and asks if you want to learn more about magic at a magical school, what would you say? This is one of those wishy-washy questions; anyone in his position probably would have said yes considering his terrible relatives, but a lot would have said yes even without them. However, because there is a huge amount of plot and mystery the readers can more easily forgive Harry’s depth of character and still love the book to pieces.

All that being said (and sorry for the sidetrack, but I find it really interesting), there were a couple really bright spots in the book. The other characters were brilliant and awesome, just not the main character. It felt like a lot of the plot was driven by the other characters reaction to the main character instead of other way around. You might like this book if you enjoy the idea of time travel or immortality type stories.

Overall Rating: 2.5/5

Violence: 3/10

Language: 3/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 3/10

Audience: Ages 12 and up

Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool

When Abilene Tucker shows up on a train in Manifest, Kansas by herself, the sign reads, “Manifest: A Town With a Past”. Strange; that isn’t what her daddy Gideon told her it said. In fact, there are a lot of things Gideon told her that don’t match up about Manifest, the town where he grew up. Looking for more clues about Gideon around Manifest, Abilene is surprised to find that there is more to this town than meets the eye.

Tales of the mysterious ‘Rattler’ begin to pop up after Abilene finds a box of knick-knacks under the floorboards of a church. With her two new friends, Abilene begins a hunt to find out what happened to the Rattler, and Gideon, twenty years ago. Walking down the Path to Perdition, Abilene must face the reality the maybe Gideon isn’t coming back for her.

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My first inclination with this book was yes, it was very good. Well written, with interesting background and secret pasts and mysterious dodgy citizens. A well thought out plot, and lots of research. Basically, everything that a person with refined taste in style raves over, like a librarian or an English teacher that will assign it as reading, because it contains everything they’re looking for: history, character building and ethnic diversity. While I don’t consider my own tastes “refined” in any way, I am trying to look at this book from several different angles: the critical, factual perfectionist editor angle, and the potential forced to read this in Junior High angle (which I was not, but the Newberry status of the book makes it the perfect candidate).

From the critical standpoint, I have absolutely nothing to say that was bad on a technicality. The writing style was unique, the story well-told, and an overall good feeling of coming together-ness from a town that fell apart 20 years earlier during WWI.

But (again, theoretically, I am not this kid), coming from the perspective of a kid who loves the Hunger Games and Maze Runner and all the other gripping popular teen fiction that lacks finesse, this book is going to be the book that puts them to sleep. “Why should I care about topics like character building or ethnic diversity?”

Personally, I liked this book. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, but I thought it was deep enough to enjoy, especially for a children’s book. It’s sort like the next step up from the American Girl series, but better and less girly. If you really enjoyed those books, then this is your cup of tea.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Violence: 2/10

Language: 1/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: 8 and up

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

Hugo has kept the secret of his notebook from everyone he knows, even if he doesn’t know many people at all. But especially from his uncle, his only living relative. Arguably, Hugo’s very existence of living among the clocks in the walls of the train station in Paris is a secret, keeping them well-oiled and running.

When Hugo’s Uncle Claude leaves and doesn’t come back to the train station, Hugo begins to wonder what will happen if the clocks stop working. He knows how to fix them, for the most part, but what will happen if the station inspector finds out he’s living alone? It would be straight to the orphanage, and then the secret of the notebook and what Hugo hides would be lost forever.

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Have you seen this movie yet? If you’ve only just heard about it, please, please, please read the book first! The movie adaptation, named Hugo, is a relatively good movie, but it is just so much more awesome once you know the story. There is a lot left out, and the story is just told in a different way that keeps the mystery much better.

There are so many good things to say about this book! I’ve only read the book through the audio, narrated by Jeff Woodman (who is a personal family favorite), and to this day The Invention of Hugo Cabret is my dad’s favorite book and probably goes down in our history of books as ‘One of the bests’. I am looking forward to checking out the book, because it has only just now come to my attention that the book has beautiful illustrations as well. Double whammy!

Technically, this is historical fiction because it takes place sometime in the 1930’s, and there was some history involved which I would rather not say, but the story didn’t feel as involved with the rest of history as you would think. In other words, it doesn’t feel like your typical historical fiction.

The way the story unfolds is just fantastic, and even though I hesitate to say it is an action/adventure type story, it still had us on the edge of our seat as the mystery of who Hugo was is discovered. The way the tension builds into an inescapable fiasco is so perfect I don’t know what to say. Other than READ IT.

Overall Rating: 5/5

Violence: 2/10

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: Ages 7 and up

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

10-year old Ada and her brother Jamie live in London with England being on the cusp of WWII. With children being sent away with the threat of bombs, their mother, who doesn’t really like either of her children to begin with, decides to send Jamie away with the other children to avoid the contempt of the neighbors. Ada, however, is to be kept at home, because, as her Mam says, “No one wants to see that ugly foot”.

And it’s almost true. Ada has a twisted foot; too gnarled to be useful, and too painful to walk on. So Ada is confined to the one-bedroom apartment for most of her life. Up until now, of course. With the help of Jamie, she escapes the apartment and her cruel mother for a life with someone new. The English countryside is something completely new and different; so many new opportunities to discover who she really is, and what the world is really like.

Susan Smith, the woman who takes the siblings in, struggles with depression after the parting of her dear friend. With the arrival of Ada and Jamie, she recognizes how much care they have lacked. The only problem is that Ada fights everything; the need for help, the need for basic care, and the need for love. How can she accept everything, or anything, that Susan offers when she knows it can’t last forever?

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I checked this audio out from the library for a road trip, and the whole family enjoyed it. Even though it wasn’t a story that is usually my dad’s cup of tea, we all agreed that this book singularly has the best character depth and development of all time. We all cared so hard, and got pretty wrapped up in the story. This also has to be the most highest rated book on Goodreads, with almost every single review being 4 or 5 out of 5 stars.

Not only does Ada struggle with PTSD (not labeled as such in the book, but that was basically it) from her past with an abusive mother, she also can’t see any worth to herself. Being told she was the most hideous person on the face of the planet and that she wasn’t good for anything is probably the hardest thing for her to overcome. Over time, she begins to recognize that she isn’t exactly worthless, but the fact that her Mam will eventually come back and take them back to their dreaded past life seems to ruin everything as she tries to hard to NOT enjoy herself, and NOT to get used to the kind Susan.

It was all so satisfying; with each triumph of Ada finding new ways with which she can be useful and discovering new things she can do, it felt so justifying. The ending was very good; the only thing I didn’t like about the entire story was that I wanted to see some kind of reconciliation or explanation of Mam’s hatred towards them. It doesn’t ever really come around. To give you a little bit of perspective, she was a little like Miss Hannigan, but a bit worse.

All that good stuff being said, I don’t think that every single person will be interested in this book. While it is well done, it isn’t for those who can only read action/adventure type stuff.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Violence: 3/10 (cruelty from the mother, and also the war finds it’s way to the town they stay in, but it isn’t really graphic)

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 0/10

Audience: Ages 10 and up

Seer of Shadows, by Avi

The year is 1872, and Horace Carpentine is apprenticed to the Enoch Middleditch, a ‘society photographer’. Photography is a subject of fascination to Horace, but Mr. Middleditch is strict about Horace NOT taking any pictures. Yet.

When a wealthy woman comes to Mr. Middleditch wanting her picture taken to present at the grave of her dead daughter, the clever photographer cooks up a scheme to create a scam photo, a “spirit image”. Horace must play a part in the get-rich-quick plot by taking pictures of pictures of the dead girl, but is torn by his conscience as to whether the Mr. Middleditch’s self-righteous excuses are valid.

The plan to create the spirit image goes horribly wrong when Horace realizes that the pictures he takes are somehow correlated to the ghost of Eleanora Von Macht, who begins to show up in ways that he never expected. The scheme spirals downward as more and more photos turn into near-fatal accidents, and Horace realizes his photography may have brought Eleanora back to life.

seerofshadows

If you have children who like to occasionally be frightened, but not scared completely out of their wits, this is a great book! Just creepy enough to send shivers down your spine, but not enough to keep you up at night, but still not a good choice for sensitive kids.

I keep saying that I’m waiting for Avi to surprise me, and this book has made it’s way near the top of the list of favorite Avi books. It isn’t technically perfect; in the same Avi fashion, the characters are kind of blah without any real growth, but the plot and setting are just perfect! It’s kind of a short read, which is weird to me because it could have been made far longer. If you’re analyzing the book (like me), there were a couple small plot holes which can be willingly suspended by my disbelief, and the ending seemed a little….easy. The beginning takes a little while to make it’s point, but afterwards it pretty fast-paced. I finished the whole book in about 5 hours.

The process of early photography is discussed, which is fairly interesting, and whole idea of a ghost image scam is fascinating in itself. Definitely recommended. I might have possibly categorized it in horror, but I don’t think that any real children’s book should ever be put in horror.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Violence: 4/10 (creepiness also contributes)

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: Ages 11 and up.

Crispin: Cross of Lead, by Avi

“Asta’s Son” is all he’s ever been called. The lack of a name is appropriate, because he and his mother are but poor peasants in 14th century medieval England. But this thirteen-year-old boy who thought he had little to lose soon finds himself with even less – no home, no family, or possessions.

Accused of a crime he did not commit, he is proclaimed a ‘wolf’s head’, meaning anyone may kill him on sight. To remain alive, he flees his tiny village, his only possessions being a newly revealed name – Crispin – and his mother’s cross of lead.

crispin

There are a couple of interesting parts about this story that make Avi stand out.

I couldn’t figure out what Avi’s intentions were with Crispin. His character was a little confusing, and also a little passive. He’s supposed to be that way though, but it makes character growth tough because he suddenly comes across as caring a little too much all at once. However, Crispin’s companion takes the cake in his world philosophy, and thought provoking ideas.

The history aspect was fairly good, although I felt that some of the small details included may be uninteresting to non-history lovers, even though it set a good picture of Medieval poverty in my head. I would probably only recommend it to people who like historical fiction.

I didn’t feel like it was Newberry award-winning material, mostly because the plot is not particularly original for Avi. He has quite a few other books that touch on the subject of innocent-accused (True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, City of Orphans, etc.), so I’m still waiting for an Avi novel to surprise me. That being said, it is still a good story and one that kids will enjoy.

Note: it does have some violence, and some gruesome descriptions of several people, long dead. He did a careful job of making it kind of gross, but nothing that would probably stick in your head forever.

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Violence: 3.5/10 (some people, long dead, are gross; one part in which a man is impaled (very brief), and one part in which a man is stabbed (also very brief))

Language: 1/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 2/10 (nothing horrible, but there is a little bit of talk about the illegitimate children of a great Lord, which comes into play later)

Audience: Ages 10 and up, as long as they don’t mind a little violence.

City of Orphans, by Avi

Maks is one of those mugs that you would call a ‘newsie’. A boy who stands on the corner and sells newspapers. It’s a hard way to earn money; the profit is 8 cents a day. But in 1893, that ain’t too bad for a 13-year-old.

When Maks’ sister is arrested for stealing a watch she never saw, Maks’ parents are confused and don’t know how to help her. Bein’ immigrants from Denmark, the law of the country don’t make no sense. Living in New York City don’t help much either; so much crime and poverty, and no one can help. Policemen are just as shady as the man who actually broke into Waldorf hotel last week and stole the watch.

With the help of an abandoned girl and an old, dying detective, it’s up to Maks to track down the real thief, in a city filled with the children of emigrants, who are all  poor and desperate. While some may have parents, they might as well be orphans.

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It’s funny; my first draft I wrote when I was only halfway through the book, but I totally changed my mind. The original rating was 2.5/5, and now it’s 4/5.

My original dislike came from the third person, present tense narrative. Not that that’s weird, but Avi spells out exactly how they talk, which can be hard for struggling readers and also for read-alouds. Avi also uses many incomplete sentences, even outside of conversation, but it makes it feel as though someone is narrating that speaks as they do. It makes the harder-to-read dialogue easier to swallow without having to switch back and forth between ‘normal’ speaking, and using an accent.

My favorite part about the book: Avi did his homework. He knew this subject well, and it showed. Almost in an unpleasant way; it felt like you were there, viewing the dirty underbelly of what it was like to be an orphan, hungry and cold on the streets, or even not to be an orphan, with a family who is so poor it almost would be better to be living on the streets so you don’t have any expectations of life getting better. Avi does paint a very clear picture of life approaching turn of the century.

For me, the characters almost took a back seat as he was painting this picture of what it was like without money, because no one had money to give, receive, or earn. It feels like Avi had this great idea about a plot, but as he delved deeper and deeper into the panic of 1893, the history aspect kept growing and growing until it almost made the plot insignificant.

Overall, it left something in me that I won’t forget. A deep sadness, in that, even though the story ended alright, there was still a city of orphans. I have never felt that before, for a historical fiction author to leave me wondering what happened to the rest of an entire city, even though we never met most of them.

I would be cautious who I recommend this to. The idea of a bigger picture within New York City was bleak. Not exactly depressing, but not cheerful either.

Listen to this:

(In reference to the newsboys): “Some lives in regular homes. Or, like you, don’t have no parents. They stay here or on the streets. Some sleep in those newsboys’ lodging houses. There are five of ’em. One for girls. Hey, I know a couple of guys who use old sewer pipes for homes. Some even live in rope houses.”

“What’s that?”

“Rooms with ropes stretched ‘cross. For two cents, you can hang your arms over the ropes, stand there, and sleep. Got a roof, don’t it?”

 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Violence: 3/10 (there are a couple ruthless bullies, plus a scene in which two men are shot, though no gore is described)

Language: 1/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: Ages 10 and up.

The Ravenmaster’s Secret: Escape from the Tower of London, by Elvira Woodruff

11 year old Forrest Harper has lived within the walls of the Tower of London his whole life. Being the son of the ravenmaster isn’t easy; his day-to-day boring chores never seem to end, although he doesn’t mind helping taking care of the tower ravens.

When several Scottish rebels are captured and imprisoned in the Bloody Tower, Forrest finds himself befriending the young Maddy Stewart, who he knows is not guilty of any such treason as is being claimed against her.

Upon learning that it is the King’s intent to execute all three Jacobite rebels, Forrest and the ratcatcher’s boy are given the choice: stay true to England and keep their families safe, or risk their own necks to help an innocent victim who happens to be from enemy country.

ravenmaster

What an interesting story! Although, to be honest, the title gives too much away from the very beginning.

It seems weird to me how lightly the author took heavy topics such as hangings, which were popular to watch in the 1700’s. Forrest happens to go watch, and it was a little gross to hear some of the descriptions of watching people hang. That was the only thing that really throws off the age range I would have given it. I would put an age cap on 14 as the oldest that would enjoy it.

I don’t have any bad things to say about this book, other than it may have been a bit predictable. The ending was very good, and wrapped up everything very nicely with a bow on top. The one thing I might have personally changed about the book was that I felt that both Forrest and Maddy were not very interesting people on their own, but the ratcatcher’s boy, called Rat, was very memorable.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Violence: 4/10 (the hangings were the only gross part in the story, and then there was a little violence aside, but none of the violence was graphic. Only the hangings.)

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 0/10

Audience: Ages 10-14, maybe 8 with parental prereading.

Calico Bush, by Rachel Field

When Marguerite Ledoux is orphaned upon arriving in America in 1743, she has no choice but to become a ‘bound out’ girl. Bound out girls are contracted for a specified amount of time to a family, to serve wherever they are and whatever the circumstances. Six years is a long time to not have a say in your own life choices. At least she has a place to sleep, and food to eat.

The Sargent’s are kind enough, but their plans to settle in rural, unsettled Maine were not exactly what Maggie bargained for. Through harsh weather, Indian raids, and accidents that never end, Maggie struggles to feel at home in a land whose story is just beginning.

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Many mixed reviews on this book from various people have me confused. I can’t make up my mind. Several aspects of this story I liked. And several parts of each aspect I like, but I definitely didn’t like every bit of it.

The plot was only okay. If you don’t like historical fiction, this book does not cater to every taste. If you are interested in pioneers, then this is a good one. I have read my fair share of pioneer/settler type books and this one falls in with the rest in the same way: it portrays life back then, but the plot and characters are not as strong because it is not meant to tell a thrilling story, but more to teach and make a point.

There were several characters I liked: the endearing Aunt Hepsa was the best, but the rest don’t have a lot of originality. Only some are described, and all the children are lumped together as, well, ‘the children’. Maggie is alright, and her character was carefully thought out. Her courage and feeling towards the people who didn’t expect it from her is fresh.

As with other historical books of any kind, the Indians were never given any kind of understanding. In a lot of books, they always mention that some are friendly, and some are hostile. Apparently, only the hostile kind live in Maine. Yet the Sargent’s, in their prejudice never gave any thought to them other than ‘bar the door, the Injun’s are coming!’

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Violence: 3.5/10 (like I mentioned, lots of accidents that may make you wince do occur, along with a creepy incident in which Maggie runs into the murder site of some settlers who have been scalped. The body’s are never actually seen)

Language: 0/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: Ages 10-14, 8 and up with parental guidance (only the one creepy part gives me pause)