A Newbery Three-fer

I’ve been continuing along in my Newbery Medal reading, but I’m behind on reviewing…so today I thought I’d do a three-for-one of three very different books, connected only by that shiny gold stamp on their covers!

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

Set in first-century Galilee, Jewish Daniel is acutely aware of his people’s oppression by the Romans.  He is driven by rage and the desire to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the Romans; he believes the way to achieve it is with a group of Zealots hiding in the mountains.  His path turns when he has to assume responsibility for his sister Leah, so frightened as a child by Roman attacks that she can’t leave the house or meet strangers.  Daniel chafes at being held back by Leah—but is also beginning to wonder if this new preacher in Capernaum, Jesus of Nazareth, might be the answer to Roman oppression after all.

This book intrigued me with the promise of a story set in first century Galilee that wasn’t the Nativity, Passion or ministry of Jesus.  Not that there aren’t a lot of good stories centered around those—but there are a lot of them.  And when Jesus entered into this story after all, I was fascinated to see him from an outside perspective.  Daniel isn’t an apostle, or even an ongoing follower.  He’s just one of the five thousand when loaves are multiplying, one of the people crowding the beach to hear the preacher. Continue reading “A Newbery Three-fer”

Book Review: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto

I’ve had mixed experience with Mitch Albom.  I liked The Five People You Meet In Heaven, but didn’t like The Time Keeper nearly as well.  I loved The First Phone Call from Heaven, but was disappointed by his most famous book, Tuesdays with Morrie.  All the same, when I saw his latest, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, sitting on the shelf at the library, I picked it up on an impulse–and it was great!

The story begins at the funeral of Frankie Presto, one of the great disciples of Music.  And while we wait for the funeral to begin, Music is going to narrate Frankie’s life for us, intercutting between stories from Music, and interviews with music legends who have all come out to pay their last respects.  The story that unfolds takes us from Spain to London to New Orleans to New Zealand, and through almost a century of music, from the 1930s on up to the present.  Frankie is a guitar player who, in Forrest Gump fashion, manages to intersect with the major musical trends of the 20th century, from Duke Ellington to Elvis to Woodstock to KISS, with plenty of jazz and country and classical thrown in besides.  Plus there’s a magical twist–Frankie has six magic guitar strings, which will change six lives.

This was a deeply clever book with a wonderful story.  I loved Music as the narrator, a mythological figure who speaks of his/her disciples across the years, who tells about how we all take a grab at a chosen talent at birth, and who tells Frankie’s life as a symphony, with appropriate musical metaphors throughout. Continue reading “Book Review: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto”

Book Review: The Conjurers

ConjurersWhen I heard about a historical fantasy novel spanning Europe in the 14th century, I thought…I like history, I like magic, I like travel stories…so I’m in!  And so I read The Conjurers by David Waid, which did feature magic and travels across medieval Europe.

The Conjurers tells the story of two sets of siblings.  In Ireland, Caitlin and Eamon must flee raiders, a flight both helped and complicated by the sudden surge of Eamon’s magical abilities.  In Genoa, Teresa’s brother Ignacio does not come home after a trip to the house of his master, an alchemist, and her search for him leads to deadly and devastating results.  Magicians around Europe are gathering for a hideous rite, and Caitlin, Eamon and Teresa are all being drawn into events.

In many ways, this book is two stories that ultimately intersect, as we cut between Eamon and Teresa.  Both are engaging stories, and there are similar thematic threads.  Teresa, like Eamon, discovers burgeoning magical power.  The plot threads take longer to come together, though it becomes evident that the villains each child is facing have connections to each other. Continue reading “Book Review: The Conjurers”

Movie Review: Newsies

MPW-62124I recently went to see the play version of Newsies, the Broadway musical on tour—which led me to rewatch the old Disney movie.  I had a bit of a Newsies phase five years ago, but haven’t watched it in a few years.  It was so much fun to go back!

Based on true events (though there was presumably less singing), Newsies recounts a newsboys strike in New York in 1899.  In the fictional version, the boys rally around Cowboy Jack Kelly, the front man while his friend David, better educated than most, has the ideas about social justice and unions.  The boys stand up against the might of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World and arguably the most powerful man in New York at the time, to demand fair treatment in their work.

At its heart, this is a story about the unseen demanding to be seen.  As one of the songs puts it, “the world will know that we’ve been here.”  I love that, because it’s coming from a group of boys who don’t get noticed, who scrape along and never get heard.  I love the theme of the unheard standing up for themselves, and I especially love it when it’s expressed in really great rally-the-troops songs.  Even better when they leap around in dance numbers too. Continue reading “Movie Review: Newsies”

Book Review: Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere

The premise of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana had me intrigued, mostly as an opportunity to read about events that are now history, but recent enough that I remember them.  I’m still young enough that I haven’t encountered that many books like that!  This one centers around Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans—and since it’s about an African-American family in the Ninth Ward, it also fits my diversity challenge.

When the story begins, Armani’s major concern is that these obviously over-blown storm warnings not disrupt her tenth birthday.  The party comes off, but when Katrina arrives that night, suddenly Armani and her family have life-and-death concerns—and I mean that tragically literally.  Armani becomes a refugee in her own city, with responsibilities no ten year old should be shouldering.

This was an excellent book—and it was terrifying on several levels. Which is part of its excellence.  Armani is a great character, who thinks she’s so much older than she is—as one does, at ten!  Her family is very loving and supportive; she has three younger siblings and a brother close to her in age.  She also has very involved parents, a beloved grandmother and an entire network of extended relations.  All of those connections make it even worse when the world fractures apart—because there’s so much stability to disrupt, and so many people to be in danger.

The book is terrifying on an immediate level, as Armani and her family are in serious danger, first from the storm and then, even more, in the aftermath of the flood as all services and normal functioning of society break down. Continue reading “Book Review: Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere”

Book Review: Up a Road Slowly

Scanning through the Newbery Medal titles, I liked the sound of Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt. In fact, it sounded rather like an L.M. Montgomery book. Which may not have been the best thing in the world after all.

The broad strokes are very recognizable—a young motherless girl is sent off to live in the country with an austere maiden aunt. There is initial conflict between them, but they gradually grow to understand and love each other. Against a backdrop of small school day dramas and eccentric relatives, the girl grows into young womanhood, chooses the right beau, and achieves artistic fulfillment.

All well and good. And Up a Road Slowly was a perfectly fine story…but it wasn’t L. M. Montgomery. Julie was just no Emily or Anne. Late in the book she discovers a writing talent, but it’s not at all like Emily’s long-held and worked-for dreams. Julie’s Aunt Cordelia, with her tragic love story, and Uncle Haskell, with his grandiose and unfounded sense of self-worth, were more colorful and interesting characters. But nothing here ever really grabbed my heart. Continue reading “Book Review: Up a Road Slowly”

Book Review: The Door in the Wall

I picked out The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli from the list of Newbery Medal winners because I wasn’t sure if I had read it before or not. It turns out the answer is no, as all I could remember of the book I thought it might be was that it involved canal boats—which don’t appear here at all. But now I have another one to check off my list!

The door of the title is much more symbolic than literal—when life presents a wall, keep looking until you find a door. Ten-year-old Robin is facing a wall with a vengeance. The son of a knight during the reign of Richard II, Robin was always meant to follow his father’s footsteps—until he’s struck by an illness that leaves him unable to use his legs. His father is on campaign, his mother is away with the queen and so Robin is taken in by the nearby religious order.  He’s cared for by Brother Luke who also offers philosophy about doors and walls. Robin eventually goes to a new guardian, a friend of his father’s, but still must find his proper role in his changed life.

This is a rather charming picture of medieval England…which is both the strength and the weakness of the book. Because it’s pleasant to read, and I like charming books. But I strongly suspect that the Middle Ages were not actually a charming time period, especially if you had the misfortune to be crippled! Continue reading “Book Review: The Door in the Wall”