Reviews

Keep Calm and Creep On: The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle

Fox, Janet S. The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. Viking, 2016. 388 pages. Hardcover $14.59, ISBN 978-0-451-47633-3; PLB $13.86, ISBN 978-1-51818-650-9; TR $7.69, ISBN 978-0-14-751713-5

TL;DR: Do I recommend this book? Yes … ish

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction, Steampunk (?)

Part of a series? Not at this time.

Plot Summary:

London is in the grips of the Blitz — it is World War II, and children are being sent away from London in order to remain safe from constant bombings. Safety is the foremost concern for the Bateson family; Mr. Bateson is a spy on a mission for MI6 — but before leaving, he secures three places at Rookskill Castle in Scotland for his children. There, the Lady Eleanor has opened an academy for children displaced by the bombings. Kat, the eldest Bateson, feels responsible for her younger siblings and does her best to remind them to “Keep Calm and Carry On” as they must leave their mother and Great-Aunt Margaret behind in London. Before seeing the children off, once-sharp Great-Aunt Margaret passes a family heirloom on to Kat. She gives the girl a châtelaine and explains that it is an extremely magical item that will help keep her safe. Kat, a lover of math, logic, and puzzles, is disturbed by this explanation, particularly since it just goes to show that Great-Aunt Margaret really is losing her marbles. 

Rookskill Castle is creepy from go, and Kat finds herself facing mystery and weirdness galore. Why is there a shortwave radio hidden in a secret room? What is Lady Eleanor trying to hide? And — most disturbing of all — why are so many secrets in the castle unexplainable by logic and common sense? Is there a spy at Rookskill Castle … or is there something much worse at hand?

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This book had a lot of potential. Historical fiction plus fantasy? SOLD! The premise was amazing. World War II plus creepy age-old magic sounds delicious. Unfortunately, the execution of the novel was a tiny bit disappointing. (This caught me by surprise given the starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly.) The start of the novel is very strong, but not long after the Batesons arrive at Rookskill Castle, the story begins to meander. Quixotic episodes repeat with little impact on the plot, and major problems are set up that either fall by the wayside or are resolved in the blink of an eye. Every few pages we are reminded about how logical Kat is … to the point that you start to wonder when it will crop up again (hardly a mysterious thing can happen without the reader being reminded of Kat’s logic). Anachronisms also crop up throughout the text as well as dialectical issues that just don’t sound right. 

That said, however, the book does deliver on tone, so I would still recommend it to my readers looking for something creepy and set in a castle/past period. I also have to think that perhaps the book just didn’t speak to what I wanted from it, especially given its reception by major reviewing outlets.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

I would hand this book to anyone looking for a readalike for Coraline, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, or Elizabeth and Zenobia.

Grade Level: 5-8

Awards and Starred Reviews:

Booklist starred 01/01/16

Kirkus Reviews starred 12/15/15

Publishers Weekly starred 01/04/16

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Reviews

Poems to enjoy: 19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye

Shihab Nye, Naomi. 19 Varieties of Gazelle. HarperTempest, c1994, p2002. 142 pages. Hardcover (by Greenwillow Books) $15.44, ISBN 978-0-06-009765-3; Tr. $5.84, ISBN 978-0-06-050404-5; PLB $14.66, ISBN 978-1-41558-344-9

TL;DR: Do I recommend this book? Yes

Genre: Poetry

Part of a series? No.

Book Summary:

Naomi Shihab Nye collects poems about her family and life as a Palestinian-American woman as well as about Palestine and how the war in the Middle East has affected the countries and the people there. Her poems have a razor-focus, often discussing olives, lemons, shoes, or trees with intense thoughtfulness and care. The poems cover deaths of children and adults, lives lost to war, and memory.

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This collection of poetry is beautiful. I found myself pausing frequently to take in Shihab Nye’s words. Here is a quote from “What news are you listening to?” that stopped me and made me absorb it for a moment:

It was winter in a minute

O I could miss who said what said

but catch the coming of winter

let me be there

please (lines 11-15).

Her other poems will also stop and plead something, pausing the reader as well and making us think. I would absolutely recommend this anthology. I also had a chance to meet the poet last year when the head of now-my library department invited me to a reading while I was interviewing for my current position. I went to the poetry reading, and Shihab Nye’s composure as a person and a poet were striking. As I read the poems for this assignment, I found myself hearing them in her voice, which, while not mandatory for enjoyment of her work, made the poems even more powerful for me.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

This is the kind of poetry that I want to make sure does not remain relegated to April displays. I would absolutely recommend this to students, and I think that this is a powerful choice for any reader. This could be a really strong choice to recommend to a student who is looking at global conflict and wants to read something from the perspective of someone who has seen war and loved those who have experienced war; seventh and eighth graders could definitely appreciate these nuances. This would be a strong book club choice as well and would be a great way to get students talking about poetry without being forced to feel as though they are diving into any rhyming couplets or “school-work” poetry. Once students have a chance to read and discuss, I would invite them to write some poetry, too. (Ideas from myself; I also know that Naomi Shihab Nye led writing workshops at the school when she visited last year, so that influenced my planning.)

Grade Level: 5-8

Awards and Starred Reviews:

ALA Notable Children’s Books, 2003

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books starred 6/1/02

Horn Book Magazine starred 9/1/02

Kirkus Reviews starred 4/15/02

National Book Award Finalist, 2002

New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, 2004

School Library Journal starred 5/1/02

Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) starred 6/1/02

Reviews

Thoughts on a novel …

I really don’t want to publish negative reviews, but in this case, I am making an exception because of how a particular medical condition was handled in an otherwise GORGEOUS book. The writing is beautiful. It’s amazing. The plot, however, ends up going down the same offensive path that Hollywood frequently uses when discussing dementia. For that reason, I’m going to post my thoughts here about Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar. (Also, I’ve had this post in my “drafts” for seven months because I was feeling conflicted about actually posting this one, but I stand by my thoughts, so I’m posting it now.)

Eagar, Lindsay. Hour of the Bees. Candlewick Press, 2016. 360 pages. Hardcover $14.49, ISBN 978-0-7636-7922-4

TL;DR: Do I recommend this? No. 

Genre: Magical Realism

Plot Summary:

Carol wanted to spend the summer between her sixth and seventh grade years like most other tweens would — pool parties, fun at the mall, hanging out with friends. Instead, she and her family must pack into their cars and drive out into the middle of nowhere so that they can help Serge, her grandfather, move into an assisted living facility for people with dementia. Carol has never met Serge, so this difficult mission is made even harder. Armed with the Seville’s pamphlet on how to handle loved ones with dementia, Carol repeats the instructions to herself as she helps pack up the house, complete minor repairs, and babysit her grandfather. Meanwhile, Grandpa Serge tells her the story of a magical tree and the bees who stole the lake and never returned. As the story develops, Carol finds more and more real-life objects that have a part to play in Serge’s story. Is it fiction, or is there magic waiting to be found?

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

Warning: Don’t start this one if you don’t want to cry in public!

This book addresses a topic that is very close to me, so my review comes from two places: not only does it come from me as a school librarian looking for a good book for my kids to read, it also comes from me as a person, the loved one of someone currently living with dementia. This book breaks my personal “No books about dementia” rule, but since there really are so few books out there dealing with the actual situation of caring for someone who lives with dementia (or being the child of those caregivers), I wanted to see what this one was like.

Dementia is a very real problem that many people — doctors, businesses, and the media — tend to ignore, downplay, or misrepresent. For someone going through helping a family member who is living with dementia, the most common media representations of dementia (i.e., “comic forgetfulness” or catatonia) are unhelpful at best and insulting at worst. Eagar explores the real-life drama and tragedy of helping to move someone into assisted living, especially when that person has zero desire to move and would rather die on their own property. To make reading this review easier, I’m going to split up the things that I liked and the things that I didn’t. There will be some spoilers, those spoilers will be in white. Other plot points will be discussed in visible (black) text if they are not major spoilers.

I LOVED —

This story has delicious amounts of magical realism. Serge tells a spellbinding story about a magical tree and a green-glass lake. The moments when Serge is telling his tale are wonderful. Eagar also captures a middle-schooler’s voice beautifully. If I could separate out the specifics of how Serge’s dementia is represented and treated, this would be a 5-star book.

My Problem: Dementia (/care options for people with dementia) is not represented respectfully in this novel:

One aspect of this book that I did not enjoy was that the move into assisted living is presented as the Worst Case Scenario; media frequently vilifies families who move someone into assisted living. In reality, assisted living is a place for people to receive the care that they need when their families are unable to provide it in-home. This may simply be a touchy subject for me, but to have yet another author use this storyline was disappointing. Kids need to read about when assisted living is the best case scenario, too, as it truly appears to be for Serge. When every novel or television show or movie shows assisted living to be the WORST thing you can do to someone (I mean, do you even love them? How could you?), it gets tough to explain to folks that really, sometimes it is the best thing.

SPOILER IN WHITE TEXT; I talk about the very end of the book here, so only highlight if you want to know how it ends:  Carol, horrified by her grandfather’s assisted living facility, busts him out late at night and drives him back to his home. There, Serge sustains a fatal rattlesnake bite. Serge is given a “good death;” albeit sad, he is able to die victorious after being on his ranch one last time and not having to return to the Seville; he gets to die on his own terms, not in the “prison” his family sent him to. This is a deus ex machina used by many writers who play up the “assisted living is the worst” trope, and I was very disappointed to see it in this book. Saying goodbye to a family home is a sad but often necessary moment in the care for someone with dementia. To have Serge be able to die “victoriously” on his own property rather than remaining in the assisted living facility his son has moved him into may confuse younger readers into thinking that what Carol did was right and that her parents were wrong.

ALSO — Does the dog die? : YES – Ines passes away the night before Serge has to move to the Seville. It’s a tearjerker for sure.

Conclusion:

I appear to be alone with regards to my feelings about the way dementia was handled. Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Common Sense Media have all positively reviewed the book. I agree absolutely that the writing of this novel is beautiful. I am completely sincere when I say that this was almost a 5-star book for me. The ending, however, undid that rating.

 

References:

Eisenhart, M. (n. d.). Hour of the bees (Review of the book Hour of the Bees). Common Sense Media. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/hour-of-the-bees#

Kirkus Reviews. (2016, Jan. 9). HOUR OF THE BEES (Review of the book Hour of the Bees). Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/lindsay-eagar/hour-of-the-bees/

Publishers Weekly. (2015, Dec. 7). Hour of the bees (Review of the book Hour of the Bees). Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-7636-7922-4  

Reviews

HOROBOD, or would that be HOROWOD? Rowan Hood by Nancy Springer

Springer, Nancy. Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest. Read by Emily Gray. Playaway All-in-One Audiobook/Findaway World, 2010. 4 hours. Playaway $54.75, ISBN 978-1-44071-207-4

TL;DR: Do I recommend this audiobook? Yes

Genre: Fantasy

Part of a series? Yes — the Rowan Hood series

Plot Summary:

Rosemary’s mother is gone; burned to death by people who think she’s an evil witch simply because she is the descendant of the Elfin people, Celandine sends her daughter a spell of protection as the house is lit ablaze. Motherless and homeless, thirteen-year-old Ro disguises herself as a boy (“Rowan”) and leaves for Sherwood Forest to find her father, Robin Hood. Along the way, she offends Guy of Gisborne when she refuses to hand over her outlaw arrows (simple bolts of sharpened wood). She also meets Lionel, a giant minstrel; Tykell, a wolf-dog; and Ettarde, an escaped princess. Will finding Robin Hood solve Ro’s problems? 

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

For this book, I listened to the version narrated by Emily Gray. Gray’s voice was lilting and engaging, and her accent was perfect for listening to a Robin Hood story. The only problems I had as a listener were understanding some of the magical words Springer uses; for instance, I thought that Ro’s mother was one of the “Alpha” and had “Alphin” magic. It was not until I turned to Google (having no hard copy of the book at hand) to check the spelling and find it to be “Elfin!” This is a very minor issue, however, and Gray gracefully performs every voice and sound. Her voice for Lionel captures his spirit perfectly, and it’s never confusing when Ettarde and Ro speak to one another. The chapters are broken up well, and the Playaway was easy to use.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

I would hand this audiobook to any student who wanted a new way to experience fantasy. Listening to this story is a lot like sitting at a campfire (perhaps in an outlaw camp?) and hearing ballads of old heroes. This is a great pick for students who prefer to listen to books over traditional reading, but this is also a fun choice for any reader. The pacing is excellent, so while it might not be perfect for listening on a run, this is also a good book for students to listen to while cleaning or doing chores. (Idea from myself).

Grade Level: 5-8

Awards and Starred Reviews:

Booklist starred 4/15/01

Reviews

Does Perfection have a Purpose? The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Oppel, Kenneth. The Nest. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015. 244 pages. Hardcover $14.49, ISBN 978-1-48143-232-0; Tr. $6.84, ISBN 978-1-48143-233-7; PLB $18.51, ISBN 978-1-51811-847-0

TL;DR: Do I recommend this book? Yes

Genre: Horror

Part of a series? No.

Plot Summary:

Steven is a nervous kid. He has nightmares that something creeps at the edge of his bed, watching him. He washes his hands to keep germs away, and he keeps prayer-like (but not prayers, since he isn’t sure he believes in God) lists asking for protection of his family and friends. He worries all the time — about the scary knife man who rides through the streets, offering to sharpen knives; about the wasps that have always terrified him, but that he now finds out he is allergic to; and now, about his family when his parents bring home their new baby boy. His new little brother has a long and difficult road of surgeries and struggles ahead of him; he is born very sick, and doctors diagnose him with a rare congenital disease. Steven knows that adults tell him that he can’t catch it, but he still worries. He also hesitates to call the baby by his name, because what if the little boy dies from his condition? Consumed with worry (and guilt), Steven struggles with sleeping…until an angel-like being comes to him in a dream, dispersing the scary dark shape that lurks at the edge of his bed, and promises to fix the baby if Steven agrees to the fix. His brother can be made perfect by these beings, but it is up to Steven to make that call. Is this really the answer to his family’s problems? 

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This book is unputdownable. It moves forward like a thriller. The angelic beings show more and more of themselves as the book progresses, and choices become much more difficult. Mysterious figures appear, and no one believes Steven when he talks about his dreams and how nervous they are making him. The book also presents the important idea that no one is “perfect.” Everyone is “a little bit broken,” even if not everyone looks it.

This book also reminded me a great deal of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. That book is devastating and beautiful, and it also deals with some very difficult topics and frightening figures.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

This would be a fantastic reading circle book. It tackles some really tough topics (OCD, anxiety, babies living with disabilities), but it does so in a way that I haven’t seen before. The book makes you think about difficult topics while also keeping you on the edge of your seat to find out what happens next. Illustrations by Klassen are gorgeous and eerie. I would love to have students read and discuss this one. (Idea from myself)

Grade Level: 5-8

Awards and Starred Reviews:

Booklist starred 7/1/15

Horn Book Guide starred 4/1/16

Horn Book Magazine starred 9/1/15

Kirkus Reviews starred 8/1/15

Publishers Weekly starred 7/20/15

School Library Journal starred 8/1/15