The Vanishing Shadow by Margaret Sutton

The Vanishing Shadow

Information

Goodreads: The Vanishing Shadow
Series: Judy Bolton #1
Source: Library
Published: 1932

Summary

When her parents go to the seaside, fifteen-year-old Judy Bolton anticipates a few boring weeks on her grandparents’ farm. Then she overhears a strange conversation about the new Roulsville dam. The workers will go to any length to keep Judy silent. Can she uncover the mystery surrounding the dam and warn everyone before it’s too late?

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Review

I initially picked up The Vanishing Shadow because I had read that the Judy Bolton series was a wonderful selection for readers who enjoy Nancy Drew. And Judy has the additional interest of actually aging over the course of her 38-book series, unlike Nancy. Apparently the books were also popular in their own day; the back of my copy states that over 5 million books were sold between 1932 and 1967 and that “the series holds the distinction of being the longest lasting juvenile series written by a single author.” This all made Judy sound very interesting.

At first, however, I admit I was a little skeptical. While Nancy tends to be upbeat, confident, friendly, and polite, Judy comes across as more immature and selfish. The book begins with her peeved at having to spend a few weeks at her grandparents’ farm because she anticipates being bored (even though her home is about 15 minutes away by horse, apparently). Her grandmother notes that Judy does little to help around the farm. Judy just keeps naively dreaming of adventure and mystery, even though she does not come across as that smart or likable, to be frank.

And, as the book goes on, Judy keeps expressing shame at her brother Horace’s “cowardice.” His coworkers call him “Sissy” and Judy really buys into the stereotypes about masculinity that her society perpetuates. She repeatedly chastises Horace for not being man enough, contrasting his timidity with her own recklessness. Probably Judy can’t help being alive in the 1930s and being inundated with gendered stereotypes, but she could stop yelling at Horace.

Still, as the book progressed, it and Judy grew on me. I am not entirely sure that Judy did anything particularly intelligent, but she seems brave enough and possibly can grow into her role as detective. I’m willing to give Judy a chance, so I’ve already ordered book two from the library.

3 Stars

Dewdrop by Katie O’Neill

Dewdrop by Katie O'Neill

Information

Goodreads: Dewdrop
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: April 2020

Summary

The pond’s annual Sports Fair is arriving and Dewdrop the axolotl is ready to cheer on his friends! Mia the turtle worries she cannot compete with the stronger athletes, Newman the newt experiences writer’s block for his new song, and three minnows fear that their cooking will not be special enough for the attendees. With Dewdrop’s support and encouragement, however, they will learn to relax, trust in themselves, and simply try to do their best–no matter what anyone else may be doing. An inspirational tale from the author of The Tea Dragon Society.

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Review

Katie O’Neill’s latest graphic novel, this one for young children, is a heartwarming story about believing in yourself and doing your best. The action is minimal, focusing on three sets of characters who begin to doubt that their talents are good enough for the annual pond sports fair. However, Dewdrop the axolotl reminds each of his friends what is truly important. The story is one that, quite simply, will make readers feel good–and it does not hurt that the illustrations are adorable.

Though Dewdrop is written for a younger audience, it is the type of story that will appeal to many age ranges–perhaps in part because it is just too cute for words. For example, I can easily imagine the people who like to read manga featuring kittens gravitating towards this book. And, of course, those who enjoyed the sweet lessons of O’Neill’s previous books, such as The Tea Dragon Society and Aquicorn Cove will want just about anything she writes.

The message, too, is a welcome one, especially now, as it focuses on positive things readers can control. It reminds them that they do not need to be in competition with others, nor do they need to please everyone. Focusing on doing one’s personal best and doing things that make one happy are manageable goals anyone can work towards.

Dewdrop is an adorable read that will appeal to young readers with is cute protagonists, bright colors, and uplifting story. However, really, it is a book for all ages. And I hope there is a sequel.

5 stars

The Case of Windy Lake by Michael Hutchinson

Case of Windy Lake

Information

Goodreads: The Case of Windy Lake
Series: Muskrat Mysteries #1
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Sam, Otter, Atim, and Chikadee are known as the Mighty Muskrats, solvers of mysteries. When a visiting archaeologist goes missing on the Windy Lake First Nation, they are ready to crack the case. However, they also have to deal with local politics when their cousin Denice takes her protests against a mining company to extremes.

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The Case of Windy Lake is clearly a modern take on old mystery series like the Bobbsey Twins or the Boxcar Children and I absolutely loved it. Set in the present day on the Windy Lake First Nation, the book follows four children known as the Mighty Muskrats as they attempt to solve the disappearance of an archaeologist from the reservation. The mystery intertwines with another plot about protests against the pollution of community water from a local mining company to keep things politically relevant. Readers who love books like the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series, and looking for a more contemporary or a more diverse mystery series, will find their answer in The Case of Windy Lake.

Author Michael Hutchinson is a member of the Misipawistik Cree Nation and an advocate for First Nation families, and his experience and knowledge shows in the book. Life on the reservation is depicted vividly and with love. The Mighty Muskrats clearly enjoy being surrounded by so many people who can pass on their knowledge and culture, and readers get to learn more along with the four main characters. I also appreciated that Hutchinson draws attention to contemporary issues facing First Nation families, such as concerns that outside forces are using–and destroying–their culture for their own gain, and that environmental protections seem to be less strict for the First Nations.

Anyone who grew up loving mystery series will be delighted to find a new one to delve into. Parents, educators, and librarians will likewise be grateful to know there is a mystery series out there that reflects more of the diversity they see in the world. So if you are looking for a fun mystery headed by a group of lovable characters, look no farther. The Case of Windy Lake is hopefully just the beginning!

4 stars

The Sword and the Circle by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Sword and the Circle by Sutclff cover

Information

Goodreads: The Sword and the Circle
Series: Legends of King Arthur #1
Source: Library
Published: 1981

Summary

The first in a trilogy retelling the story of King Arthur and his knights. Includes the story of Arthur’s birth, the pulling of the sword from the stone, the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, and more.

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Review

Rosemary Sutfcliff writes her retelling of the story of King Arthur with a brevity of style that simultaneously works well for a children’s story and to add an understated depth to her material. She moves effortlessly from depictions of daring deeds and gallant knighthood to statements of the dark deeds that ultimately drive the story: Uther Pendragon’s deception, King Mark’s jealousy, Morgan le Fey’s treachery, Lancelot’s betrayal. Nobility and shame sit side by side, mixing to create a tale that both enchants and repels.

Of course, Sutcliff is drawing here upon rich source material. And it is not necessarily her skill that makes the story of King Arthur so rich and so wonderful. Sutcliff’s feat here lies in adapting that source material for a younger audience in a way that does not feel condescending. She chooses stories that highlight the choices of the knights in their youth, perhaps making their tales resonate more with the youth who will read them. And she takes care to use a writing style that has some gravity to it, but that still feels accessible. One can believe that some modern readers will be more likely to pick up and finish her volume than Le Morte D’Arthur.

Also interesting are what appear to Sutcliff’s additions to the story. Here, for instance, Sir Lancelot is a ugly-looking fellow, a knight at first notable mainly for his hideous visage. Eventually, however, Lancelot becomes known for his knightly behavior and his prowess. Mentions of his appearance become less frequent, as if to mirror the way in which the court may now view him: as a fearless knight and not simply an ugly lad. And it speaks volumes that the beautiful queen herself can fall in love with him. Looks are not everything, after all.

Fans of Sutcliff’s historical fiction will, of course, wish to check out her take on the King Arthur story. But readers looking for an accessible introduction to King Arthur may also appreciate her work. It helps that this is the first of three volumes. Readers will be less intimidated by the size of the story, and can easily stop after one volume if they feel sufficiently immersed in the medieval saga (or if they are simply looking to avoid the necessarily depressing end of the tale). The Sword and the Circle is a highly readable retelling, one told with respect and skill.

4 stars

The Demise of Selma the Spoiled by Evangeline Lilly

Information

Goodreads: The Demise of Selma the Spoiled
Series: The Squickerwonkers #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2017

SummarY

Selma is now a part of the Rin Run Royals and she gets everything she wants.  But when a peddler comes to town, Selma’s greed may be her undoing.  A disturbing cautionary tale in verse by Evangeline Lilly (Lost, The Hobbit, Ant-Man and the Wasp).  Illustrations by Rodrigo Bastos Didier.

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Review

The Demise of Selma the Spoiled is a short cautionary tale told in verse.  This is technically the second in the series, following some sort of prequel, and the intent seems to publish a book about each member of the Rin Run Royals and how their particular vice leads to their undoing.  The premise will appeal to fans of the morbid, but I suspect the illustrations (and Evangeline Lilly’s star power) will be what really entice readers to pick up the book.

Writing a story in verse is difficult and, while Lilly’s effort is not flawless, it does have a musicality that many other children’s books I have read lacked.  It is easy to imagine the book being read aloud, though readers will have to change the natural stress of some lines in order to make the rhythm work.  This may not bother all readers, however, as these instances are not many.

The story itself is deliciously creepy and readers who enjoy disturbing works by authors such as Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein will likely find The Demise of Selma the Spoiled delightful.  (Parents with impressionable or easily scared children, however, may want to wait on this one.)  However, it must be admitted that the complex and weird illustrations ultimately steal the show.

The illustrations strike me as very busy.  There is a lot going on in each page and this, at times, makes it a little difficult to read the text, especially when it is presented in thin, wobbly, colorful fonts.  I felt slightly overwhelmed during my first read through and found it a little difficult to concentrate on the text when presented with so many vibrant, full-color spreads.  However, a second read was more enjoyable as I spent more time perusing the bizarre illustrations, wondering what parts signified (if anything), and trying to decide if I liked them or was just creeped out.  Fans of the macabre will definitely want to take a look.

The Demise of Selma the Spoiled is not exactly a stand-out children’s book.  However, the full-color spreads will appeal to book collectors while the promise of a morbid cautionary tale will appeal to readers looking for more stories to delight and disturb.  And, if nothing else about the book seems enticing, you can read it just because you love Evangeline Lilly’s work.

3 Stars

An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving by Louisa May Alcott

Information

Goodreads: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1868

Summary

When their mother and father are called away to the bedside of an ill relative, the Bassett children decide to make Thanksgiving dinner all by themselves.

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In An-Old Fashioned Thanksgiving  plot is not particularly memorable and the characters are not engaging enough to make a simple story interesting by garnering reader sympathy.  The end result is that the book does not really stand on its own.  Individuals seeking to read more of Alcott’s work or scholars looking at her oeuvre are the ones most likely to pick up the book in the first place.  They are also the ones most likely to find something interesting about it.

Books, of course, do not need to have fast-paced, action-packed plots to be interesting; stories like Little Women are a testimony to that.  However, books lacking such plots often create interest by investing readers in their characters.  An-Old Fashioned Thanksgiving fails to do this.  There are too many Bassett children and too few pages for any one character to be fully described or to come to life.  Readers will likely struggle to remember most of their names as so few of them are present in a meaningful way.  The younger ones, especially, get very little page time.  The older ones get more, but are depicted as having one main character trait each.  There’s the hardworking one, the quiet one, the take-charge one, etc.  Because the children are so poorly depicted, their struggle to make dinner without the help of their mother falls flat.

A late episode within the story seeks to add a little drama and make it more exciting for readers.  However, readers uninterested in the characters are not likely to care much whether anyone gets hurt.  Additionally, the episode ends rather quickly, restoring order and good cheer to the household.  One gets the sense that Alcott realized cooking dinner is not particularly thrilling, but was not quite sure how to remedy that within a short space.  As a result, the episode feels tacked on, an unnecessary diversion from the main point of the book.

Readers who love Alcott will perhaps not mind these flaws as much; anything from her pen might have an inherent interest for them.  Readers simply seeking a good holiday story, however, might want to seek elsewhere.

2 star review

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Trans. by Richard Howard

The Great American Read is an eight-part television series celebrating and discussing America’s top 100 novels as chosen by a survey of approximately 7,200 people.  Americans can vote on their favorite book once a day until the winner is revealed on October 23.  Here at Pages Unbound, we’ll be joining the fun by reading, reviewing, and discussing some of the nominees!

Information

Goodreads: The Little Prince
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1943

Summary

A pilot crashes in the Sahara Desert, where he meets a prince from another planet.  On that planet, the little prince tends a vain rose, who eventually reveals to him the most important things in life.

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Review

“Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

I had never read The Little Prince before, mainly because I was under the vague impression that it was a really weird and probably boring book about a pilot and a planet, or something.  I really had no idea and I had no interest.  However, now that I have read it, I that realize I was missing out on something rarely beautiful.

The Little Prince is a charming tale about the important things in life–but not in an insufferable or stuffy kind of way.  Rather, it is like a fairy tale, stripping away non-essentials to get at what really matters: love, kindness, friendship, selflessness.  It is a book born of war.  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his peers, perhaps, saw firsthand just how little and silly certain pre-war obsessions meant.  The king who rules over nothing, the businessman who counts what he does not own, and the vain man whose thrill in admiration the little prince cannot understand, all speak to the emptiness of power and prestige.  They do not make these men happy.  But the tender devotion of a little prince to a flower?  Ah, that means everything.

And Saint-Exupéry is masterful in leading his reader to this recognition.  He challenges them to return to a childlike state where wonder is everywhere and anything is possible.  Children, he reminds us, do not worry about silly things like numbers.  They think in essentials.  They can see the elephant inside the boa.  Step by step he leads readers from a desire to see the elephant, too, through the poignant tale of the prince’s care, and finally to a startling realization: the existence of a flower is essential.  A lonely planet can make them weep.

It is not difficult to see why The Little Prince remains beloved worldwide.  The story speaks straight to the heart.  Like the pilot, readers will feel that the little prince is a friend, and that his happiness is intertwined with theirs.

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About the Author

Born in Lyons in 1900, Antoine Saint-Exupéry trained to become a pilot in the military and subsequently worked various jobs, such as delivering airmail.  During WWII, he flew to New York to ask the U.S. to intervene in the conflict, then returned to fly reconnaissance missions for France.  He never returned from his last mission in 1944.

Source

  • Saint-Exupéry, Antoine. The Little Prince. Trans. by Richard Howard, Harcourt, 2000.

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5 stars

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

The Great American Read is an eight-part television series celebrating and discussing America’s top 100 novels as chosen by a survey of approximately 7,200 people.  Americans can vote on their favorite book once a day until the winner is revealed on October 23.  Here at Pages Unbound, we’ll be joining the fun by reading, reviewing, and discussing some of the nominees!

Information

Goodreads: Where the Red Fern Grows
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1961

Summary

Billy Colman wants nothing more than to own two red coonhounds, but his family cannot afford them.  For two years he works to save the money himself and then, at last, he, Old Dan, and Little Ann are an inseparable trio, the best hunting team around.  The classic story of a boy and his dogs.

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Review

When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me.

Set in what appears to be the 1920s in the Ozarks, Where the Red Fern Grows is a celebration of the ties that bind people and their animals.  In many ways, the plot follows a simple trajectory, eschewing drama in order to focus on the relationships.  The result is a compelling story sure to melt the hearts of readers.  I never thought I would fall in love with a story about a boy and his dogs, but Wilson Rawls won me over from the start.

Though the 1920s were certainly a different time with different values, I immediately found myself entering into Billy’s world with sympathy and compassion.  Billy is simply too plucky for me not to root for him.  His perseverance in working for his dogs, his willingness to suffer for them without complaint, and his hard work in training them all made me love him.  He may live so far in the country that he has never seen a school or a soda pop, but he loves the life he has and he faces any challenges with cheerful determination.  His mother may dream of living in the city, but his heart is in the woods and readers have to respect that.

The dogs’ love for Billy return, however, is what really makes the book. They have a wonderful relationship, with Old Dan and Little Ann refusing to hunt with anyone but Billy.  They also look out for each other on the trail, lick each other’s wounds, and share what they have.  Billy believes in them so much that he refuses to break any promises he makes to them, often wearing himself out or risking his own life to make sure that they know he will always come through for them.  The dogs take pride in their work hunting raccoons and Billy understands that and respects it in a way others will not.  Billy treats his dogs like people, not animals.

Where the Red Fern Grows is a beautiful story that justly deserves its status as a classic.  You will want a box of tissues handy as you sob over Billy’s determination and his dogs’ devotion.

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About the Author

Born in the Ozark Mountains, Wilson Rawls received little formal education.  He was inspired to write by Jack London’s Call of the Wild, but in his adulthood ended up destroying several manuscripts because he was ashamed of his spelling and grammar.  His wife encouraged him to rewrite Where the Red Fern Grows, however, and then acted as a copy editor for him.  Where the Red Fern Grows was published in 1961.

Sources:

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4 stars

 

Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien Reading Event 2018Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Home and Hearth: The Many Ways of Being a Hobbit. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!  Check out the complete schedule here.


Mr. Bliss by JRR Tolkien

Information

Goodreads: Mr. Bliss
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1982

Official Summary

Mr. Bliss’s first outing in his new motor-car, shared with several friends, bears, dogs, and a donkey, though not the Girabbit, proves to be unconventional though not inexpensive.

Review

Mr. Bliss is a delightful yet little-known story that Tolkien wrote for his children.  It’s fairly straightforward as children’s stories go, following the misadventures of Mr. Bliss after he buys a new automobile and discovers it might be more trouble than it’s worth, so I can see why the tale isn’t generally mentioned among Tolkien’s bigger works.  However, the story is amusing and a must-read for any Tolkien fan.

The published book is a facsimile edition, reproducing Tolkien’s illustrations and hand-lettered text on the right-hand pages, with typed-out text on the left.  The illustrations are on the smallish side but still detailed and characteristically Tolkien.  There are also some entertaining captions, such as when Tolkien notes that he’s tired of drawing the car in every scene so he simply left it out or when he comments that a character is missing from a certain scene because he rose from his chair to do something else.  Normally I’m not a fan of authorial asides, but these come across as personal notes to the reader and are just in the right space between charming and funny.

The plot is wild and clips along at as a fast pace, as Mr. Bliss encounters an increasing number of troubles with his new car, running people over, picking people up, driving into walls, and so forth.  I suppose it’s a bit of a story of its time, when automobiles were still kind of wild and new, but it doesn’t read as old or out of touch.  Rather, it’s just hilarious and will still resonate with today’s readers.  (As a side note, I half wonder if the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender reader Mr. Bliss because there’s a character here who keeps screaming “My cabbages!” and Mr. Bliss keeps as a pet a Girabbit, a cross between a giraffe and a rabbit.)

I’ve been meaning to read Mr. Bliss for years because it’s currently out of print in the US and can be a bit hard to find.  I was excited to discover my local library actually has a copy (it never occurred to me to look before), and I highly recommend it to anyone else who can locate a copy.

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4 stars Briana

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

The Jungle Book

Information

Goodreads: The Jungle Book
Series: None
Source: Borrowed
Published: 1894

Review

What little I know of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book comes from having watching Disney’s animated version exactly once, several years ago.  So, I knew basically nothing going into this besides there being something about a young human boy being raised by jungle animals.  Imagine my surprise upon discovering the book contains seven stories, and only the first three are about Mowgli.  I do think, however, these three stories are the strongest.

Mowgli’s stories are, interestingly, not told in chronological order; they start with the story of how Mowgli leaves the forest, then circle back to tell one adventure he had while living in the jungle and one story of how he eventually returned to the jungle.  The biggest themes seem to be about power and “the law of the jungle,” which is powerful but apparently not as binding as many would like.  I enjoyed reading about the adventures Mowgli, his wolf family, and his other friends had, as well as how the laws of the jungle were sometimes helpful and at other times ignored.  I have not yet fully decided whether Kipling’s depiction of certain animal societies is supposed to be commentary on something broader, however (such as the depiction of the monkeys as a species completely ignored by the other jungle animals because there is no clear monkey society or law).

The other stories in the book were more hit or miss for me.  The first story to break away from Mowgli is simply about a seal who wants to find his seal friends/family an island uninhabited by men so they can hang out without fear of being hunted.  It’s pretty straightforward, and I didn’t find it all that interesting.  Another story is basically about army mules/horses/elephants/etc. debating who has the coolest, most important, most courageous job.  I think readers, especially younger ones, who happen to like animal stories will enjoy some of these offerings.  (Humans feature in some of the stories but are generally not the point, and I’m certainly not an expert on whether Kipling is portraying the societies with accuracy.) Personally, I found the stories amusing enough while I was in the process of reading them, but I’m not sure I would go out of my way to revisit them.

The Jungle Book was worth a one-time read for me since it is a classic piece of literature, and it does have some of the unique charm of older children’s stories, if you’re into that particular style.  However, since I’m not really an animal story person, I don’t think it spoke to me the way it may speak to some other readers.

Note: I read the MinaLima edition of the book, which is beautifully designed and definitely worth picking up if you like adding pretty books to your collection.  I think the claim of “interactive elements” is a bit overblown because this generally means you might be able to spin an illustration or unfold a map, but they do add some fun to the book.

4 stars Briana