Goodreads: Flight of the Phoenix
Series: Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist #1
Summary: Nathaniel Fludd’s parents, adventurers and explorers, promised to take him travelling with them on his eighth birthday. Now ten-years-old, Nate hears word from them for the first time in years—only to learn that they died at sea. His last remaining relative, Aunt Phil, takes him in, but she follows the family vocation as a beastologist. As soon as he arrives on her doorstep, she whisks him away to Arabia to witness the birth of a phoenix—and then disappears. Alone and scared, Nate will have to prove to himself that he has what it takes to carry on the family business.
Review: Written for a slightly younger audience than LaFevers’ middle grade series featuring Theodosia Throckmorton, Flight of the Phoenix includes the same sense of adventure and hint of the magical, but in bite-sized form. At a mere 134 pages, the story keeps the action coming; readers barely meet Nate before Aunt Phil whisks them away with him on a journey comprised of a series of mini episodes that create some excitement, but mostly serve to set up relationships and mysteries that will presumably become more relevant as the series progresses. Although older readers might find themselves wishing for more substance, those in the target age range should find much to fire their imaginations.
The story neatly mixes the fantastic with the real, creating a world where mythical creatures exist—if one knows where to look. LaFevers further makes the premise believable by grounding the plot in a sense of history. She provides a brief backstory explaining the existence of beastology while attempting to insert a little bit of real history and culture through her choice of setting—1928 England and later Arabia. Unfortunately, though the time period could have been fun to explore, LaFevers does very little with it; the only hint of why she chose it over any other period comes from a vague interest in the advancing technology. Setting some of the story in Arabia likewise seems like a lost opportunity. Aside from learning that the Bedouin are a nomadic people, readers receive essentially no cultural information; Nate and Aunt Phil might as well as have stayed in England, since nothing on their journey happens that might not have happened similarly there.
Flight of the Phoenix has difficulty standing on its own a story. The almost episodic nature of the plot makes it seem as if things happen simply to advance the action or, in many cases, to set up action that will occur in later books. Undoubtedly the length is meant to serve younger readers, who might not mind the almost abrupt style. To me, however, this installment seems like the beginning of a book, not a book itself. As the series progresses, the importance of the time period may become more apparent and the journey to Arabia will surely seem less random as Nate and Phil travel to other places in order to perform their work. Getting a few of the books at once and reading them consecutively might help readers to connect more with the story. Currently, however, I feel a bit as if I have received the beginning of a manuscript and then discovered the rest was missing.
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Goodreads: New Chronicles of Rebecca
Series: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm #2
Review: New Chronicles of Rebecca defies easy categorization as it constitutes neither a sequel nor a companion book to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The stories contained in it take place during the same time as many events of the first book, so that it can almost be thought of as an extension to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Reader reaction to it will thus largely depend on what they expected to find in a sequel.
Personally, I always wanted to see Rebecca grow up and I looked for this book for years in hopes of discovering what sort of career she might choose or whom she might marry. Wiggin left hints but nothing concrete, and I longed for some sort of certainty. This book spans enough time that it suggests, once again, that Rebecca’s marital prospects lie in a certain direction, but readers never get to follow her on that journey. I had to accept this disappointment before I could judge the book on its own merits.
Since the stories in New Chronicles fit in between those of Rebecca, the timeline can prove confusing, especially to those who have not read the first book in some time. However, if readers feel comfortable not quite remembering who all the characters are or their actions in the past, they will find that Wiggins provides enough clues to allow them to orient themselves in a general way. As long as they can recall that certain characters are friends, others outcasts in Riverboro society, the reading proceeds smoothly enough.
Unfortunately, I did not find the stories in this book as captivating as those in the first. The focus of the stories seems to lie on how impressionable Rebecca is—thus, we have the rather standard account of how she forms a missionary society to save souls after hearing a speaker or the story of her attempt to find a young orphan a home. Some laughable consequences occur, but largely Rebecca seems to realize her own mistakes and clashes with her strict aunts are reduced to a minimum. It is hard to believe these events occur at the same time as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm—a time when a young girl struggled valiantly to make herself fit into a new society and please her relatives.
I did appreciate, however, the realism Wiggins brings to the stories. Even though the incidents she narrates are not highly original (a lot of them occur in L. M. Montgomery’s stories or similar works), she does not romanticize them too much. Thus, readers can never feel assured that the orphan with a home will stay in that home. Likewise, Rebecca’s amateur missionary society does not succeed in making churchgoers of all of Riverboro. Such doses of reality can make hackneyed plot points more palatable to the general reader.
If such stories had comprised the entire book, I would have been pleased enough with more adventures of Rebecca’s, if not overly impressed by the execution. However, portions of the beginning of the book are written as diary entries of Rebecca’s. I did not find these precocious entries, with their earnest attempts to sound eloquent and profound notwithstanding the poor spelling, very amusing. I think a lot of girls who longed to be writers have been there. Some will empathize with Rebecca and think back fondly on their own childhoods. Some will probably grimace in pain and a bit of embarrassment. I was with the latter, even though I think Wiggins’s attempt to write with the voice of childhood was a bit too naïve and earnest to be convincing.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is rightly considered a children’s classic, but New Chronicles of Rebecca lacks much that gives the first book its charm. Relationships and personalities are considered established, so that readers never see how much the love of certain people means to a lost young girl or how desperately that young girl wants to be accepted. Rather, Rebecca moves through Riverboro as if in her own world, going through the motions of what young girls do—play with their friends, go to school, make mistakes. She does not seem to live on the page in the same way and even a glimpse into her diary cannot make her seem real. After years of searching, I find myself disappointed by New Chronicles of Rebecca.
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Goodreads: The Lost Prince
Summary: War has rocked the small Eastern European country of Samavia since the fifteenth century when an uprising overthrew the king and his son apparently faced death by an assassin. Centuries later, exiled Samavian patriot Marco Loristan and his friend the Rat believe that the prince may have survived and that his heirs wait in hiding for the day they can reclaim the throne and restore peace to their country. They dream of serving him and aiding his return, but what can two small boys do to help spark a revolution?
Review: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s works will perhaps inevitably always face comparison with her classic stories A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Even without having to stand in the shadows of these works, however, The Lost Prince would never have stood the test of time. Its predictable nature and flat characters prevent all suspension of disbelief—never did I believe this story was taking place or even could. It presents itself merely as a mess of sentimentality and clichés.
Readers will most likely discern the trajectory of the plot from the first pages. Burnett provides enough heavy-handed clues for her audience not only to know who and where the prince of Samavia is, but also how he will regain his throne. Predictability, of course, does not immediately doom a plot; Shakespeare feels comfortable enough with his storytelling skill that he can announce the ending of Romeo and Juliet at the beginning and know that his audience will not abandon him. The Lost Prince, however, does not explore the idea of an empty throne in a new way. It does not raise interesting ideas. It does not even provide interesting characters. I almost wonder that Burnett did not bore herself writing the story.
The characters could have redeemed this book. However, they are too stereotyped and sentimentalized to seem real. Burnett presents Marco as the perfect young gentleman, trained from early days to act discreetly, politely, and bravely. He befriends a poor street urchin (the Rat) who has brains and wits, but lacks the means to develop them. This would have been quite enough for readers to accept, but the Rat must also lack the use of his legs. His name stems from the way he scurries about as a result. I almost stopped reading the book at this point because the treatment of people with disabilities was so sickening.
I also found myself annoyed with the inability of the characters to identify the lost prince. They possess the same knowledge the readers have about Samavia, so their ignorance can only stem from Burnett’s desire to maintain some sort of imagined suspense. Her clumsy manipulations of the story were prevalent throughout and always distracting.
The most obvious of the authorial insertions was the spiritual aspect. Midway through the book, Marco suddenly reveals that his father once met a Buddhist monk and received a divine mission to teach to the world the Law and the Order. Marco and his father never evinced any evidence of spirituality before this point, yet suddenly Burnett wants her readers to believe that they will restore order to the cosmos through their teachings. Restoring a king to his nation seemed hard enough, so this new goal seems unnecessarily complicated. It also seems unlikely, since Marco and his father do not even seem to live out this religion on a daily basis.
As a fan of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and even Little Lord Fauntleroy, I wanted to like this book. After all, sentimentality and predictability do not necessarily disturb me. However, the plot seemed too forced to be taken seriously and the characters generally proved flat, unlikeable, or simply uninteresting. I will read more of Burnett’s lesser-known works in the future, but it seems clear that the majority of them must have fallen out of favor for a reason.
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Goodreads: Bard of Avon
Review: The title of Stanley and Vennema’s work seems a little misleading. Since historians know so little about Shakespeare himself, the authors necessarily talk a lot more about the playwright’s world—the theatres, the system of patronage, the political atmosphere—than about the playwright. In doing so, they provide an informative overview of the theatre in Renaissance England made lively by the inclusion of detailed pictures. Unfortunately, however, Shakespeare remains a contentious topic, and the authors choose sides in debates without ever recognizing that debates exist. Presumably they wished to simplify the topic for young readers, but this approach necessarily raises questions about what young readers should be exposed to and when. Shakespeare gains much of his beauty from his complexity, and it seems to me a disservice to pretend that he and his works generate no dissent among scholars and critics.
Length constraints undoubtedly played a role in forcing the authors to skim over some of the controversies surrounding Shakespeare. Scholars, for example, argue about such matters as whether Shakespeare ever revised his plays and whether he wrote for the stage or for the page, but Stanley and Vennema simply explain that the playwright wrote for his actors and never reworked his lines. They also make assumptions about Shakespeare’s life, deducing from the scanty historical record that Shakespeare must have had an unhappy marriage and proposing that during his “lost years” he worked in his father’s business (though they do mention other suggested occupations).
Perhaps my greatest problem with the book lies in the attempt to explain the trajectory of Shakespeare’s work by linking groups of plays to his supposed emotions when writing them. The authors are not alone in trying to match the tragedies to an unhappy period in Shakespeare’s life and the comedies to a happy one, but such speculation never seemed particularly scholarly to me; an author does need to feel depressed in order to write a sad play. Such an assertion undermines Shakespeare’s artistic talent and limits his artistic vision.
A quiet literary judgment about Shakespeare’s work also seems to have been made in this biography. For many years, Shakespeare’s last plays (known under various names such as the comitragedies or the romances) were not highly regarded by critics. Perhaps the works consulted by Stanley and Vennema did not give the romances much attention as a result, for the authors here relegate them to a single line—in which they merely note that these last plays show a love of the countryside.
I recognize the merit of Stanley and Vennema’s work in light o f the need to make a difficult subject accessible to younger readers. The authors even provide a handy bibliography so young researchers can learn more about Shakespeare and the debates he has inspired. If I had children, I would probably even buy this book for them. Because I approached the book with my own ideas of what Shakespeare is, what he means, and how he should be treated, however, I found myself, when reading, sidetracked by questions of how I might have written a similar work. Is it possible to include all the questions surrounding Shakespeare? Is it even desirable? Maybe Shakespeare is a subject like chemistry where the first things students learn are often not true—but they have to be taught that way as a foundation for later learning.
Source: E-copy received from publisher in exchange for an honest review
Summary: Grace has always been fascinated by the world around her, but her interest grows by bounds when she is visited by spirit guides who gift her with a wonder stone. Her mission is to explore the world and store her wonder in the gem as she journeys toward the Rainbow. The trip is not as straightforward as Grace expects, however, as she meets a number of people she can only help if she deviates from her path.
A verse retelling of The Other Side of the Rainbow (1910) by Florence Bone.
Review: Michael Tolkien brings new life to a charming and instructive children’s story about the nature of wonder, sending his heroine Grace on a number of missions on which she learns to help others and to always stay curious. Readers need not be familiar with Florence Bone’s The Other Side of the Rainbow to enjoy Tolkien’s re-imagination. A thoughtful and intelligent preface, however, (which will remind many of Michael’s grandfather’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s philosophy of literature, even in spite of a desire to appreciate Michael in his own right) presents readers with an overview of Bone’s version and interpretations of Tolkien’s changes, in addition to his musings on the meaning of art and the nature of Faerie. This does mean, of course, that readers who would prefer to interpret the story on their own might wish to read the preface last.
Tolkien makes Bone’s story his own, adding new scenes, lessons, interpretations, and his own voice. He even writes in verse, although since it is free verse the most evident reason for doing so is that children will be less intimidated by 200 pages of story if the lines are short. Nonetheless, Rainbow does have the feel of an older children’s book—something, like The Other Side of the Rainbow, that was published in the early twentieth century. The plot, the morals, and the sheer charm of it give it that tone. (So, yes, this is a good thing, and it fits the story perfectly.)
Tolkien uses a strong narrative voice that occasionally interjects into the story to address the reader. It often offers background information children will need to understand the story or explains the lessons being taught. If there is one thing Rainbow lacks, it is subtlety, although this is probably a good thing if very young readers are going to follow it for 200 pages. The plot, too, is undemanding, despite Grace’s many deviations from her original purpose into other adventures; she never faces danger for long before a solution appears and she is travelling once again. The constant action is likely to keep children interested. Adults will be drawn in by the imaginative world-building and the same type of wonder that Grace is trying to cultivate.
Rainbow is delightful, delicate, and imaginative, just like the illustrations by Maureen Ward. Its story, though featuring Grace and her many exciting adventures, is just as much about the readers, as it strives to teach them to also wonder about the world and to seek their own adventures. Those who have wonder, explains Rainbow, never grow old.
Published: 2012; print version March 2013
Goodreads: Leonardo da Vinci
Review: Stanley’s biography of one of the Italian Renaissance’s most celebrated men deftly captures the spirit of the age. Stanley covers in limited space the key aspects of da Vinci’s life, touching on his paintings, his inventions, and his personal affairs. She never lingers long on one subject, presumably to keep the attention of the young readers for whom her book is intended. Even so, she manages to give an impressively detailed overview of a unique age in human history.
Though the information provided will surely interest readers, much of the book’s charm lies in Stanley’s illustrations. Her detailed scenes show everyday life in Renaissance Italy, giving readers the impression that they are truly looking at da Vinci and his contemporaries. Small touches such as a cat licking a paw or a skull quietly lying on a shelf add realism to the scenes and encourage readers to spend time lingering over them, and enjoying them. Best of all, Stanley includes miniature depictions of da Vinci’s actual art, so readers can see what all the fuss was about. The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa make appearances, as do sketches of anatomical sketches.
Stanley clearly hopes her book will prove a resource for young readers interested in the Renaissance, and she does her best to facilitate the search for knowledge. The beginning of the book provides a useful phonetic guide to French and Italian names, while the back gives a bibliography complete with resources recommended for younger readers. A preface of sorts as well as a postscript ground da Vinci’s life in history, explaining the importance of his work both in his time and in ours. The entire book seems to celebrate art, intellect, and man’s capacity for greatness.
Stanley’s biography will enchant readers both with the breadth of information provided and its gorgeous illustrations. It demonstrates that learning history can be fun–indeed, a lifelong passion.
Goodreads: Nate the Great
Series: Nate #1
Summary: Nate the Great’s friend Annie has lost the picture she painted of her dog Fang. Nate will have to use his powers of deduction to recover the painting and earn his reward of pancakes.
Review: Nate the Great draws readers in to its world of quirky characters and not-so-pressing mysteries from the very first page. Sharmat gives each character distinct traits—Annie likes yellow, Rosamund likes cats, and Nate likes pancakes—that simultaneously work to help younger readers identify each character and to produce laughs over their idiosyncrasies. Older readers will appreciate the subtle irony underlying the story, especially in regards to the illustrations, which frequently show the characters in humorous situations or illustrate a contrast between what the characters say and what they do.
The simple prose and stark illustrations furthermore provide a nice introduction to the mystery genre. Nate’s repetitious observations help mark potential clues while the uncluttered scenes make it easy to pick out elements in the illustrations that do not belong. The manner in which the crime is solved can provide a nice transition to discussing other topics that children may be exploring in class. Thus, though primarily meant to entertain, the book can be used to help children learn how mysteries are constructed and to encourage close reading and critical thinking.
I grew up with Nate and years later I find him just as entertaining—if not more so. His pride in his abilities (if not always warranted) proves strangely endearing, as does Annie’s affinity for all things yellow. I regret not purchasing some of the other titles in the series when I had the chance because I would love to follow Nate and his friends on adventures once more.
Goodreads: The Stubborn Princess
Source: Goodreads First Reads
Summary: A princess with curly hair down to her feet decides one day that she no longer wants to endure the constant tugging and pulling that comes with the upkeep of her long mane. Her appearance quickly deteriorates so that a group of birds mistakes her hair for a nest and flies the girl far away. The princess learns about the price of stubbornness on her journey back home.
Review: The title of this book suggests that the author wishes to teach a moral about the cost of stubbornness, but the premise of the story does little to aid her cause. Anyone with curly hair or hair that reaches their feet will sympathize with the princess, who presumably endures hours of combing and brushing just to keep herself looking presentable. Her desire to avoid unnecessary pain and waste less time on her appearance is completely understandable, and the royal Combers and Brushers could have saved everyone a lot of trouble merely by suggesting a haircut. If the princess is wrong, it is not because she does not want her hair brushed but because she threw a temper tantrum over the fact.
If readers can overlook the illogical premise on which the plot rests, the rest of the story can prove mildly enjoyable. There are hints of interesting creatures and places in the magical kingdom in which the princess lives, and only the length limitations on the book prevent the author from exploring many of these concepts more in-depth. The pictures, too, add a humorous touch to the story, especially the depictions of the increasing horror of the princess’s tangled hair.
Unfortunately, the author chose to write the story in rhyming couplets, and her skill sometimes falters. A few instances of imperfect rhyme such as the coupling of “size” and “sky” prove distracting, as do some lines where the meter breaks down. Often lines seem inserted solely for the sake of maintaining the rhyme scheme.
Children, the audience for whom this book is intended, will likely overlook the few flaws the book possesses, however. The quirky charm of the story as well as its strong-willed heroine stand a good chance of engaging them, and the rhyming scheme will help them to follow the story and anticipate future events. The comedic pictures add the finishing touch to what is essentially a light and fun story.
Review: When I first read this book many years ago I had no idea how much so many people would love it. I thought it was somewhat interesting and told a few family members about it, and that was it. A couple years passed before I picked up the second or the third, which were out by then. And I had no problem with that. It is fairly obvious to me now that a series for which I could wait patiently for years, not even thinking about the books, before I read the next installment must not have captivated me. I am sorry to say that this rereading (not the first) has failed to change my opinion of the book.
For many series, the first book can become the most boring either because it is reread the most as each new book is released or because it has to take up a lot of time setting up and explaining things readers come to take for granted. That is not really the case for Sorcerer’s Stone, where Rowling very skillfully grabs the reader’s interest from the start with strange goings-on around Privet Drive and then keeps it by introducing magical items through Harry’s fresh eyes. None of the magic and wonder is lost with rereading; it is still a surprise to see a wall of brick part to reveal Diagon Alley, still a marvel to see the underground vaults of Gringotts, and still a delight to hear the Sorting Hat introduce the Houses for the “first” time. Unfortunately, the magic ends with the magical world. Read the rest of this entry
Note: Krysta and I have each posted a review about this book. See Krysta’s post for the summary.
Review: A Tale of Two Castles comes as Levine’s first completely original book after a few years of penning fairy books for the Disney Pixie Hollow line, and it does not let readers down. There are problems with the story, certainly, which one is tempted to think an editor would have suggested Levine change if she were not quite so famous, but overall the work is highly creative and engaging. Like Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre, A Tale of Two Cities keeps the reader turning pages to find out what happens next—and there are definitely a few surprises. The cast of characters is diverse, ranging from the likable protagonist Elodie to a detective dragon, a handsome cat trainer, a kindly ogre, and a flighty princess. Their interactions are delightful to watch, and readers are kept on their toes to observed them carefully to unravel the mysteries of their actions just as Elodie and the dragon do. Any fan of Levine will be thrilled to add this book to their collection. Read the rest of this entry