Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Tucket's Travels: Francis Tucket's Adventures In The West, 1847-1849

Tucket's Travels: Francis Tucket's Adventures In The West, 1847-1849 Tucket's Travels: Francis Tucket's Adventures In The West, 1847-1849 by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is actually a whole 5-book series bound in one volume and tells the complete story of Francis Tucket's adventures in the old west, starting with being kidnapped by Pawnee after straying too far from his family's wagon train. Over the next two years Francis meets a number of different people, some good and some very bad, as he suffers through many dangers and hardships as he works to find his way West and hopefully reunite with his family.

I bought this for my nephew, as he is a generally a reluctant reader, but does enjoy the adventure and survival stories found in many of Paulsen's books. I have to say, from the summaries I thought it sounded like a great story for a kid, but I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed it. I was a bit concerned about how Native Americans would be portrayed, since these books were written before there was much concern for cultural awareness or sensitivity, but I was pleasantly surprised there, too.

While I can't judge how accurate or authentic the portrayals were, I was pleased to see Paulsen did not fall back on stereotypes and the typical tropes. Different tribes were identified by name and were shown to have their own cultures and languages, and they were not portrayed as savages, but merely as people trying to survive and protect what was theirs, with some individuals being kind and friendly while others were hostile. Paulsen also provides notes at the end to give more historical context and correct misperceptions perpetuated by the TV and film industries.

The pace moved along pretty quickly and while it has a happy ending for Francis, there are many hardships and sad circumstances portrayed, as well as some significant violence, including various deaths. An attempted rape is alluded to, but the language used is vague and ambigous, so would go over the head of many young readers. The violence is realistic to the time period, but is not described graphically. Hunting animals for food is also described, as one would expect considering the story and time period.

I would highly recommend this to young readers who are interested in adventure and survival stories, and it is probably one of the few middle-grade Westerns still around; actually the only one I can think of, which makes it unique.

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: Guts: The True Stories behind Hatchet and the Brian Books

Guts: The True Stories behind Hatchet and the Brian Books Guts: The True Stories behind Hatchet and the Brian Books by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Beloved author Gary Paulsen, patron saint of reluctant readers, describes some of his real-life experiences that went into the writing of Hatchet, including witnessing more than one death, plane crashes, encounters with various wildlife, running the Iditerod, and roughing it in the wild. He also gives readers a glimpse into what must have been a difficult childhood, mentioning kind game wardens who looked the other way when he was forced to hunt out of season to feed himself because his drunken parents couldn't provide for him and he was hungry, and several low-paying menial jobs he held as a kid to get by.

This book is a somewhat random compilation of stories, in no particular order, jumping around among various points in Paulsen's life. The writing is not particularly eloquent, but it is gritty and compelling and will have the reader alternately laughing, gripped in suspense, and recoiling in horror (and maybe slightly dubious that one person really experienced all that?). I really liked the quotes from Hatchet sprinkled throughout to remind you of the part of Brian's story that is related to the real-life tale you are about to read.

Readers who were fans of the Brian series, or of tales of hunting and outdoor survival in general, will definitely enjoy reading Paulsen's memoir. I gave it 3 stars from my perspective, but easily 3.5-4 from the perspective of the intended audience.

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Review: Our Only May Amelia

Our Only May Amelia Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

May Amelia lives on a farm in Washington state around the turn of the last century, the only daughter of Finnish immigrants. In fact, she is often referred to as a miracle because she was the first girl born in the whole area that had only seen boys before that. Despite her "miracle" status, May Amelia is often the scapegoat for things that go wrong, simply because she's a girl. May Amelia has a hard time being the only girl in a family with seven brothers, and is often scolded for not being a Proper Young Lady due to her independent and adventurous spirit. Life is not easy for anyone living along the Nasel at that time, as frontier life was fraught with danger and tragedy.

I bought this book for my niece who also suffers being afflicted with too many brothers, based on summaries and recommendations, and decided to read it for myself. I found it an enjoyable read, except for one glaring issue - what in the hell does the author have against quotation marks?? The book was filled with dialogue, and not a single quotation mark to be found throughout. I found this to be distracting and confusing, making it hard to follow the story. I do not understand the purpose of this, and can't fathom why an editor let the book go to publication like that. I do not approve of such stylistic choices at all, but particularly for children's literature, since they are still learning and to see correct usage, not be confused. This is very different from having characters use improper grammer in a realistic way.

This is a charming story that draws the reader into May Amelia's world and will have them sharing her emotions. Her close relationships with her favorite brothers were very sweet and touching, but the brusque way her father treated her, blaming her for things that weren't her fault and complaining about her being a girl was maddening, though that was nothing compared to the constant verbal, emotional, and physical abuse heaped on her by her bitter, sadistic grandmother. I admired how independent and adventurous May Amelia was, not wanting to settle down and be a wife and mother, but desiring to travel the world instead. My favorite line in the whole book made me laugh out loud. May Amelia is getting fitted for a dress, and is accompanied by her friend Emma:

May Amelia - "Get Me Outta These Darn Pins"
Emma, shocked - "May Amelia you curse like a boy. You should mind your language--you'll never get a fella if he hears you talking like that."
May Amelia - "I got seven brothers already, why would I need another boy?"


This story is well paced and a fairly quick and easy read, other than the confusion caused by not using quotation marks. It would surely appeal to any other young girl who is burdened with too many brothers or is independent and adventurous like May Amelia and can relate to fighting others' expectations and gender stereotypes. Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series or The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate would likely enjoy this book as well.

Jennifer Holm has written several middle-grade novels, mostly historical fiction, including Turtle In Paradise, several of which have been award winners or honor books.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: Out of Darkness

Out of Darkness Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was inpired to read this after hearing the author, Ashley Hope Perez, speak at a children's literature conference recently. Ms. Perez was an excellent speaker, and I really enjoyed hearing how her students inspired her to write, and I particularly found the story of the real-life historical catastrophe that provided the inspiration and backdrop for this particular book interesting. But, for someone who seems very energetic and upbeat in person, Ms. Perez certainly writes a very bleak story.

I honestly don't know how to rate this book. I mean, it was very well-written and a compelling read, but the ending was so horrific and bleak and disturbing, I almost hated the book afterward. I ended up giving it 3 stars as a compromise, but if I were to break it down, I would give it 4 stars for quality and 2 stars for whether I liked it and felt I would recommend it. I really *wanted* to like it after enjoying and being impressed by hearing the author speak, but I just don't do well with dark and disturbing.

Ms. Perez does an excellent job developing the characters and making you care about them, (view spoiler) Since the book starts off with the explosion of the school right away, and the racism of the time is obvious, the reader knows the whole time that the ending can't be good, but can't help but to keep reading because the developing relationships between Naomi, the kids, and Wash are so beautiful, despite the constant threat of Henry, the twins' moody and tortured father who seems like could have been a decent person under different circumstances, if he were just a little bit stronger. Though one can feel the tension building for a sad ending, it isn't exactly what you expect, and is perhaps even worse.

To be fair, there is nothing unrealistic about the fictious events, that are in perfect keeping with the racism and attrocities commited in that place and time. It is very sobering and thought-provoking, and I did appreciate the author's note at the end, describing how the story developed from the thoughts and questions that came to her as she learned more about the New London school explosion and surrounding culture and events. However, I honestly don't know who I would recommend this to, unless someone was specifically asking for historical fiction related to racism and related attrocities. The ending is so dark and almost hopeless I don't think it is a book that just anyone could handle, though I do know a few who love anything that is dark, disturbing and depressing. I would not recommend it for younger teens, but for older teens and adults, and only those prepared for how dark and disturbing it really is.

Ashley Hope Perez has written two previous YA novels that have a more contemporary setting, and I'm curious if they are just as dark and depressing, but I'm not sure I'm prepared to find out just yet. Maybe in the springtime when my mood isn't already so dreary...

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Review: Beyond the Bright Sea

Beyond the Bright Sea Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"When I was a baby, someone tucked me into an old boat and pushed me out to sea. I washed up on a tiny island, like a seed riding the tide. It was Osh who found me and took me in....The island where we found each other was small but strong....we didn't need anything else. Not in the beginning....And then, one night when I was twelve....I decided on my own that it was time to find out where I'd come from and why I'd been sent away."

And so Crow introduces us to her story, how she'd mysteriously washed up on the shore of an isolated barrier island off the coast of Massachusets in the early 1920's as a newborn, and found by that island's sole inhabitant, a man she calls Osh. Osh raised her with the help of Miss Maggie, who lives on a neighboring island, and they were content with their unconventional family and simple life in relative isolation. That is, until the day Crow begins to feel the need to know where she came from and why she was put adrift in the sea, and is drawn to nearby island, formerly a leper's colony, in search of answers. Her search sets off a series of events and an adventure she could never have anticipated.

This is a beautiful story that explores the meaning of love and family and the joys of a simple life, but also includes mystery, adventure, and pirate's treasure; told in a poetic, lyrical 1st person narrative. The voice is so calm and the pace unhurried, that it at first seems deceptively simple, but as the author skillfully weaves the story, it becomes more complex and turns from a touching story of a lost soul finding an abandoned baby who helps him regain his humanity to a mystery ending in a treasure hunt. We also get a glimpse of the fierce independence and self-sufficiency of those living on the islands. Crow's character is well-developed, but we really only see a part of who Osh is, as he is very private about his identity and past, though he alludes to leaving his old life to avoid persecution and conflict and that it is just too painful to think or talk about, rather than being a secret.

The author's notes at the end tell a little bit about what inspired her to write this story, and some of the real history of the Elizabeth Islands.

Lauren Wolk is also the author of Wolf Hollow, which was a 2017 Newbery honor book. Personally, I enjoyed Beyond the Bright Sea much more. It's hard to say if it's actually better, or if I just preferred the more hopeful mood and sense of adventure, whereas Wolf Hollow was much darker with a rather bleak ending. I think this book may possibly get a Newbery nod as well, but then again, the awards committees and I never seem to be on the same wavelength. I would recommend this book to readers who like a little bit of everything in their stories, and who appreciate characters taking an emotional journey of self-discovery, as well as going on actual journeys of adventure. Readers who, like me, enjoyed Wolf Hollow but felt cheated by the ending, will find this book much more satisfying.

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