Review of “Hell & High Water” by Tanya Landman

This historical fiction novel for young adults set in 1752 is surprisingly gripping; I got caught up immediately in the mysteries surrounding 15-year-old Caleb Chappell.

Caleb is mixed-race, and frequently misidentified as a slave while he accompanies his white father Joseph around the English countryside putting on Punch and Judy puppet shows. But as the book begins, his father is falsely accused of a crime and taken away, condemned to transportation to the colonies. Before they are separated, his father tells Caleb how to find his aunt, about whose existence he had been unaware.

Caleb finally locates Anne Avery, who faints dead away when she sees him; why? Just one more of the unexplained puzzles you will encounter in this appealing story. Caleb also gets to know Anne’s stepdaughter Letty, who eventually joins forces with Caleb in trying to figure out what is going on.

Racism prevents Caleb from finding work to help out Anne and her little family (she also has a baby named Dorcas) but he is able to assist Anne in mending clothes on contract. (Letty is stronger than Caleb and so the traditional gender roles get reversed with these two.) Meanwhile, Caleb finds a dead body, runs up against baffling barriers to finding out what happened to his father, and learns first-hand about the cruel injustices of not only race but class. The odds are so stacked against them, you will be hanging on your seat to see if they come out this tale with any success, or even survive at all, as Caleb and Letty face an accusation of murder.

Evaluation: There are many twists in this riveting story about the corruption of power and money, and the impotence of those without them. The pacing is excellent, and Caleb and Letty are strong characters, using their wits and courage to fight a system against seemingly insuperable odds.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published in the U.S. by Candlewick, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “In Plain Sight” by Richard Jackson

This is a heart-warming story for ages 4-7 about the close relationship between a little girl, Sophie, and her grandfather, who lives with her and her parents in a cozy brownstone apartment. The grandfather is confined to a wheelchair, and so Grandpa “lives by the window.”

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Every day when Sophie gets home from school, he asks her to find some everyday object he claims to have misplaced. It is usually in plain sight so readers can find it easily along with Sophie. The placement of the objects also reveals something about the Grandpa’s past, so readers can surmise he was a policeman, and he used to play football, and he loves to read and play checkers with Sophie.

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The full-bleed pencil and watercolor illustrations by award-winner Jerry Pinkney are lovely, with a warmth that reflects the relationship between Sophie and Grandpa. In each picture Grandpa’s cat plays a role as well, which will add to its charm for young readers.

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Evaluation: This would make a good book for parents and children to have a participatory reading, in which the kids can help find the missing objects and identify all the interesting details in Grandpa’s room.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2016

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Review of “A Court of Wings and Ruin” by Sarah J. Maas

Note: There will necessarily be spoilers for the first two books in this saga; this is the third.

I loved the first and second books, A Court of Thorns and Roses, and A Court of Mist and Fury. But this book was my least favorite of any of the Sarah Mass ongoing fantasy series.

Feyre is now High Lady of the Night Court, but she is keeping it a secret, since she is still “incognito” at Tamlin’s Spring Court, pretending to be faithful to him so that she can destroy him. As far as she is concerned, Tamlin is wholly evil, even though he not only did so much for her and her family in the past, but as she said herself, “he’d sold out all of Prythian, sold out everything decent and good in himself, to retrieve me.” You would think she would at least appreciate that what he did was to save her.

Feyre is playing a dangerous game against powerful forces in the Fae Kingdom. Her first step is to “make Tamlin believe, truly believe, that I loved him and this place, and everyone in it. So that he would not suspect when I turned them on each other.”

Eventually she manages to pretty much destroy Tamlin’s Court and to escape back to Rhys, along with Lucien, Tamlin’s second. Lucien still is loyal to Tamlin but he believes Feyre’s sister Elain to be his true mate, and feels compelled to go to her. Thus Feyre succeeds in taking almost everything from Tamlin, but she feels fine about it. In fact, after confronting her faults and shortcomings in a magic mirror, she confesses that with all the wretched things she saw, “the pride and the hypocrisy and the shame” – “I think – I think I loved it. Forgave it – me. All of it.”

Meanwhile, she is reunited with her true mate Rhys, and they have earth-shattering sex that, unlike in previous books, is a bit cringe-worthy. The writing of these scenes seemed “tired” in spite of all the hyperbole and mutual “claiming.” Feyre even has a couple “lip-biting” episodes right out of “Fifty Shades.”

When not having sex, they are all preparing for war against Hybern. Feyre also has plenty of advice for the group, even though she is basically a teen and they have all been alive for more than 500 years. No one seems to mind. The cause of the war is the question over the the future of Fae and humans, and the outcome is unsure. It will depend in part whether Feyre, her sisters Nesta and Elain, and Amren, all of whom were “created” Fae by the Cauldron, can counter the magic power of the Cauldron.

The ending was a bit surprising, and possibly over the top, if anything can be over the top in a fantasy series.

Discussion: In the first book, Feyre started out as a somewhat bratty, self-absorbed ingrate, but in the second she gradually grew up and became a more well-rounded person. Here she goes back to her “roots” but everyone loves her anyway.

Moreover, she makes constant sacrifices for her sisters, one of whom, Nesta, was especially always so nasty to her in the past, and hasn’t changed much. Yet Feyre has infinite patience and forgiveness for Nesta, as opposed to say Tamlin, whose main crime seems to be that he didn’t include Feyre in the business.

Finally, there were a number of scenes I thought were gratuitous, or over-written, and could have been eliminated. I got the feeling they were included so the author could add diversity and sensitivity to gender issues. But they seemed tacked on, and dragged out the story without adding much.

Evaluation: While I was disappointed with this book, it wasn’t like I couldn’t read it, and probably not like I can’t read the next….

Rating: 3/5

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2017

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Review of “The Big Book of Canada” (Updated Edition) by Christopher Moore

This gazetteer is delightful, not only because of the information it includes, but because of the addition of charming illustrations by Bill Slavin. For each province and territory, you will find a brief history, a report on the geography of the region, biographies of some famous residents, a timeline (called “Moments”), a sketch of the ethnic groups living there, a description of the work they do, a look at local government, a page of trivia, photographs, and a page with something extra, unique to the area.

It may be a local recipe (examples include Figgy duff, nanaimo bars, blueberry grunt, and bannock – I read about bannock all the time, but never knew how to make it!), or amusing place names (Skoodawabskooksis in New Brunswick!), the regional official song or a characteristic poem, or as with Newfoundland, a fun selection of regional vocabulary – who knew “dumbledore” meant “bumblebee” or that blind man’s bluff is called “bonna winkie”?

Best of all, the facts included are not dry at all; the author did an outstanding job in reporting essentials in an engaging way, as well as including very fun additional information. I loved learning about Ogopogo – the creature in Lake Okanagan in British Columbia; where one might find the only place outside the Arctic you can spot the white beluga whale; a description of the various “daredevils of Niagara” who have performed stunts over Niagara Falls (such as going over in a barrel); background on the sport of curling; and the tidbit that Canola oil was actually invented by Canadians (and even the fact that canola is a “crop”).

And how could I not know the names for the stone markers I see all the time? It turns out names for Inuit stone markers include “Inuksuk” “Aulaqut” “Niugvaliruluit,” and “Pirujaqarvik” to name just some of them.

As if all that is in the book couldn’t keep you entertained for a very long time, an annotated list is given for more books about or set in each area. (Naturally, for Prince Edward Island the Anne of Green Gables books are listed prominently.)

Evaluation: This book will provide hours of entertainment and enlightenment, and is perfect for people like me who harbor shame over not knowing much about our neighbor to the north, even while professing the desire to move there.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Tundra Books, a division of Random House of Canada, 2017

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Review of “The Traitor’s Kiss” by Erin Beaty

In this young adult fantasy, Sage Fowler, 17, is an apprentice to a matchmaker. She was taken on in part because she herself would not be much of a “threat” to matches proposed vis-a-vis other girls – she was an orphan with no property of her own; she wasn’t into dressing up or “acting like” a girl; and perhaps most importantly, she could not long maintain a subservient demeanor. Her job is to covertly help the matchmaker evaluate potential matches, which is especially important because of the upcoming Concordium during which many of the liaisons are formalized.

Because of recent unrest in the kingdom, the girls are to be escorted by a division of soldiers made up in part of members of the royal family traveling incognito. They too are interested in surreptitiously evaluating people to see if they can ferret out the intentions of one of the hosts along the route, Duke Morrow D’Amiran.

Sage spends time with the army’s cart driver, Ash Carter, with both of them using the other to gather information. They end up falling for each other, but it is based on a lie about who each of them is. Meanwhile, there is treachery afoot, and both the brides and the army are in extreme danger. The pace of action picks up, as does the possibility of romance.

Discussion: There are many caricatured aspects of this book, from the shallowness of most of the girls seeking husbands, to the beard-stroking villain. But the non-villainous characters are well-drawn, and so appealing you may overlook the cartoonish figures.

Likewise, the plot has little unpredictable about it, except perhaps for one tragic event that happens at the end, a development that took courage for the author to include.

Evaluation: While there isn’t much surprising about this story, I found it very entertaining and even edge-of-your-seat towards the end, and eagerly look forward to the next “installments.” (Initially I thought it was a standalone, but found to my surprise after completing the book that it is part one of a trilogy – surprising because the story does in fact have an “ending,” a nice feature one doesn’t always find with trilogies.). And who could resist the fabulous cover?

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Macmillan’s Children’s Publishing Group, 2017

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