Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review: Hetty Feather

Title: Hetty Feather
Author: Jacqueline Wilson
Release Date: 2010
Genre: historical fiction, family, friendship, orphans, British literature, children's fiction
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: Children's fiction (middle grade)
Age Group: 10+

Hetty Feather's name isn't actually Hetty. That's just the name the Foundling Hospital gave her when she was abandoned there by her mother. She's pretty sure she actually has a really beautiful name, even though she's not quite sure that would match her appearance.
Lucky Hetty ends up with a loving foster family. Then, she's sent back to the Foundling Hospital at the age of six, as is required of all foundlings who were fostered. There, she learns her school lessons and sews. She's fed and has a home.
Hetty knows there is so much more in the world, and quite honestly, the Foundling Hospital isn't what it's all cracked up to be, and Hetty and her authorities don't get along very well.
Which is fine, because Hetty is dead set on finding out who her mother is and finding a real home at last.
What will happen to Hetty?

Word of Warning
I apologize that this list isn't as detailed as it could be. I had not intended to write a review on this book and had to read it for school in less than 48 hours, so did not have much time to keep a detailed list of problems.
  • Orphans, often hopeless.
  • Children are "beaten" as punishment.
  • Children sneak out when they're not supposed to.
  • Mention of a circus lady being "barely dressed". She is idolized for her skills as a horse rider by Hetty.
  • Children are mean to each other.
  • People die. Children die.
  • A man, probably a pedophile, approaches Hetty and speaks to her. For the innocent reader, all you can tell is that he's a creepy person. For the more mature reader, the signs are there for us to know what this man is without the story becoming graphic.
  • A drunken man beats his children (mentioned but never shown).
My Thoughts

This seems to be the Laura Ingles Wilder series of Britain. It has its own show, has become a series, is historical fiction, and is very popular.

It's well written. I didn't need the impish redhead on the front of the book to know this girl was sassy, cute, and just trying to make it with what she's handed. The narration is well done, and mature themes are handled very appropriately. They are serious, but because of the narrator's age the story moves past them quickly. This risks making serious things feel trivial, but such as not the case. Just as death isn't trivial for children in reality, it's not trivial here either. It's just dealt with at a different speed, with a different understanding, and in a different way than adult readers would tend toward in their own lives.

Honestly, this is a very well-done book. There were points where I skimmed narration (possibly because of the short time frame I had to read the book). There were points when my frustration as a reader could not be reconciled by my knowledge as a writer and literary critique (those moments when there really seems no good reason for that plot point/twist to have happened).
Overall, though, it was well done. I won't be giving this book away any time soon, except as a loan, and as such, to anyone who is willing to take it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review: Matilda

Title: Matilda
Author: Roald Dahl
Release Date: 1988? (hard to tell)
Genre: adventure, comedy, children's fiction, British literature, school
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: Children's literature
Age Group: 8+ (will probably require some discussion, not a read-alone book for this age)

Summary: Matilda is a very special little girl. She taught herself to read. She knows her times tables. She completely blows away her first year teacher.
Of course, her parents think she's stupid. But then again, they're not much better. Her father is a swindler, and her mother's goal in life seems to be to watch her programmes on TV. Her brother...well he doesn't even merit mentioning, aside from saying that her father seems to think the lad is very bright and has a future in the car selling business.
School, then, should be a safe haven for Matilda to really grow. It's not. With Miss Trunchbull as the headmistress, no child is safe at school. I mean that in a very literal sense. They get throw out windows and hung by their ears. Miss Trunchbull is a very mean woman.
When Matilda sees what Trunchbull does to the other children, and her beloved teacher Miss Honey, the little girl sets her brilliant mind to finding a solution and saving the school. Can she do it?

Word of Warning
  •  Understand that this is classic Roald Dahl. He has a very British sense of humor (snarky, slightly rude/crude). This particular book is full of great insults. None bad words (so far as I know, given my limited knowledge of British English), but some real whoppers, nonetheless.
  • Violence. Children are beaten, hung by their ears, and forced to do miserable things (eating a whole cake, standing in the Chokey (a torture device), and slapped about). This is cartoonish in terms of rules of the universe, which means everyone is fine and not injured, but it can still be rather concerning.
  • Matilda is a completely independent child it seems like. She is not even five years old at the beginning of the book. She goes to the library and reads numerous mature books. She goes off to her teacher's house. She decides to live with her teacher (this, for some reason, requires the consent of her parents).
  • Matilda's parents are stupid, and portrayed as such, and she likes to "punish" them for their stupidity by playing pranks on them.
  • There seems to be a huge role reversal here with Matilda being the "parent" and her parents being the "children".
  • It is implied that a man was killed by his sister-in-law.
  • A trick is played in which it is pretended that a man (who is dead) writes a message on a blackboard to his implied killer.
  • Roald Dahl tends to have a rather snarky slightly negative view of children, but in a more playful way than, say, Augustine's description of babies, or Barrie's description of children as happy, fun, and heartless. Still, one of the harsher words he uses to describe children is "scab" (something to be picked off as soon as possible).

My Thoughts
My first inclination as I was reading this book was to smile a bit and shake my head. Then I laughed a few times. Then I winced while laughing. Then I wondered what the target audience was, since it was getting pretty intense.
Overall, it was a fun book. Roald Dahl can be a bit crude at times when it comes to his language and stories, but he's still good entertainment, and Matilda is no exception.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review: The Five Children and It

Title: The Five Children and It
Author: E. Nesbit
Release Date: 1902
Genre: children's literature, fantasy, adventure, family
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: Children's Fiction
Age Group: 4+ (good read aloud)

While on holiday in their country house, five siblings decide to go exploring the gravel pit (going to it by the safe route). There, they find It. It is a Psammead (say: Sammy-add), or a Sand-Fairy. The Sand-Fairy is crabby and old and looks sort of like a furry monkey with snail eyes. If It's appearance is not enough for you, perhaps the fact that It can grant wishes will catch your interest. Yes, It can give you anything you desire, but whatever you wish is, it will turn to stone (or disappear) at sunset.
The kids try all sorts of things. They try for fun, they try for good things for their mother, and a lot of the time their tendency to say "I wish such-and-such" in everyday speech gets them things they never really wanted.
And what if you accidentally wish that everyone wanted your little baby brother? Or to live in a besieged castle? What then?

Word of Warning
There is very little here to warn about, which is why it makes such a good read aloud book for the family. I will say that even when things appear to be dangerous and the children in the book are worried, the reader never has that moment of panic and "are they going to make it this time?!" that other books can supply. It's not urgent, not scary, and more of a fun romp that offers instead the question of, "how will they wiggle out of this one?"
  • The kids are normal siblings. They clearly love each other, but they don't always get along.
  • There is a rather disrespectful representation of Native Americans. Not inappropriate, but rude. The same can be said for a band of gypsies.
  • Speaking of rudeness, while the children never swear, they are not above tossing out an insulting comment now and then to each other.
  • Kidnapping.
  • The kids are not always big fans of having to bring their baby brother with them.
  • It has been proposed that the representation of girls and boys in this book is lopsided and slightly sexist. I honestly see it more as little children just being little children, but it does merit at least mentioning.
  • The narrator is different from our usual American children's literature. This can be challenging for the readers to handle sometimes.
  • The children never learn their lesson. It feels like they just might, but then they don't, and they wake up in the morning and repeat the whole ordeal all over again.

My Thoughts
 It's fun. It's British. It's cute. It's a romp.
There are no obvious lessons or morals (though some are debated). This is not a preaching book. It's really just a fun adventure with British children as they enjoy their summer home. This is a fast read, and one you probably do not want to miss out on, especially if you have the opportunity to read it aloud to a younger audience.

Fun Facts
  • E. Nesbit was a rather controversial figure and would be considered so even now, let alone during her own life time. She preferred to write adult fiction, but her children's fiction sold better. Strangely enough, she wasn't a big fan of children.
  • The book was published as a serial novel in The Strand. This might be why it feels so episodic, to the point where you could reorder the chapters and have very little difficulty understanding the story.
  • Over the years, this book has been offered numerous sequels from many different authors. It was a huge hit in England and has shaped many aspects of children's fiction for a very long time. C. S. Lewis writes about how she influenced his Narnia series. There are also many film adaptions.
  • Since its publication in 1902, it has never been out of print.
  • Nesbit also wrote the children's classics The Railway Children and The Treasure Seekers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Book Review: Naughts & Crosses: a thriller


Title: Naughts & Crosses: a thriller
Author: Malorie Blackman
Publication Date: 2001
Genre: romance, thriller, discrimination, racism, tragedy, British literature
My Rating: *
Official Rating: fiction (adult)
Age Group: 18+

Callum McGreogor is a Naught, a "blanker", and he's white. That means he's at the bottom of the social ladder, as in, the very bottom of the social ladder. Sephy (Persephone) Hadley is a Cross, a "dagger", and she's black. That means she's at the very top of the social ladder, and since her father, Kamel Hadley, is headed toward being prime minister, well, she's at the very top of the social ladder.
In true Shakespearean fashion, the two fall in love. And as with every Shakespearean tragedy, things fall apart.
First it's Callum's attempts to attend a Cross school. He's let in, but really, did anyone expect him to be welcomed? Then his sister Lynette's demise. Father and brother joining the Liberation Militia, and the bombing of a local mall. An arrest. A hanging.
And let's not forget Sephy's attempts to reach her best friend. She tries to talk to him at school--and gets beaten up by the other Cross girls. Her mother has a drinking problem. Her sister hardly speaks to her. Her father has affairs and an illegitimate child and will do anything to remain in the favor of the public.
With everything working against them, and with society changing their views of reality, will Callum and Sephy make it, as a couple, or even as friends?

Word of Warning
  • Mrs. Hadley drinks and is almost constantly drunk. Her daughter also takes up drinking.
  • Mrs. Hadley overdoses on sleeping pills. One theory is she attempted suicide, but the majority believe she just did it for attention.
  • Broken families. Lots of conflict between husbands and their wives, and many mentions of separation and divorce.
  • The Liberation Militia will stop at nothing to defeat the Crosses. Bombings, kidnappings, murder. And their recruits? They are asked to do horrible things, twisting their minds to hatred and nothing else.
  • Mr. Hadley is one of those lying politicians who carefully constructs a public image we've heard so much about in the media as of late.
  • A young woman is mentally unstable. Later, when she seems to recover, she commit suicide.
  • A man is hanged. Another man is electrocuted when he tries to escape prison (this quite possibly was a suicide as well.
  • Violence. Racism. People saying and believing horrible things.
  • Sephy's genuine attempts to bridge the gap between her family and Callum's are scoffed at and she is scolded by Callum's family as well as her own. Later, the author tries to convince the reader she did these things to make herself feel better--and nobody's buying that explanation. This just negates all her actions and frustrates the reader.
  • Kissing. And I'm not talking a chaste kiss between a good couple. I'm talking drunken kisses, desperate and passionate kisses, all in first person. It's the kind of kiss that, shown in a movie, makes the viewer squirm uncomfortably and wish it was over.
  • An unmarried couple has sex, and while the scene cuts out at the last possible second, it still gets rather graphic. In addition to that, it's all wrong. The girl cries. This happens while she's being held prisoner by the LM. She becomes pregnant. Everyone (except baby's father) urges her to have an abortion, but she refuses.
  • A young man is accused of rape (see above described scene). He and the girl both insist it wasn't rape (though honestly, I think there is an argument for it actually being rape). People won't drop this issue and the word keeps getting brought up again and again. It is harshly dealt with.
My Thoughts
I wasn't sure about reviewing this one, because I don't want to sound racist. The reason I gave it one star is because the idea behind the story was important. Discrimination is a reality, in all sorts of realms, and I'm not talking about just racism.
Do I agree with what the author did here? No. Was it interesting? Yes. She flipped what society is calling its norms, and quite honestly, it wasn't any different for me to read it this way than it would have been to read it the other way around. It was an interesting idea though.
But I didn't like the execution of it. I didn't like the characters. The dialogue was incredibly painful, as was the narration. The writing style in general was painful. And this was no thriller.
I read this book for a class, and I started reading it very early on because I could only read a few chapters at a time before needing to stop. Not because it was heartbreaking. Because it was annoying to read.
It was a good idea. It was poorly executed, to the point of it being incredibly hard to read. I'd be interested in seeing this done again, but done well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Book Review: The Club of Queer Trades

Title: The Club of Queer Trades
Author: G. K. Chesterton
Release Date: 1905 (pre-conversion)

Genre: mystery, adventure, humor, morals
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: fiction (adult)
Age Group: 12+
Students' Rating: "confusing but funny"

A collection of G. K. Chesterton's writings about Basil Grant, this novel is more episodic than the classic novel we are used to. It revolves around men belonging to the Club of Queer Trades, where one must create an entirely new way of earning an honest living in a way that has never been done before. Basil Grant, likely a precursor to Fr. Brown, left his job as judge long ago, apparently having gone crazy. Now, he wanders about England with his brother Rupert (a mockery of Sherlock Holmes) solving apparent mysteries that, well, aren't nearly as mysterious and criminal as they appear.
Word of Warning
  • Mention of opium
  • Mention of adventures that involve going to different countries and killing animals for sport
  • Fist fights
  • Apparent danger, prisoners
  • Some slightly immoral businesses. Not immoral along the lines of inappropriate, but immoral as in not morally right.
  • There are lots of things that simply have to be interpreted a different way for them to be understood as not crimes but merely interesting ways of living.
  • Basil is a mystic and stargazer (among other random things)
  • Characters smoke

My Thoughts
Think the beginnings of Fr. Brown and Manalive. It's got enough misunderstandings, moral and philosophical murmurings, quirky characters, ramblings, bashing of others' ideas and authors (Darwinism, Doyle, etc), and Chestertonian-ness to be amusing and full of insights. These are fun little capers that are just quirky enough to keep you smiling and reading. Sure, there's a lot going on, and it's not the best of Chesterton's writings, and it doesn't hold together well. But it's still a fun read that can be thought provoking.
At the very least, it's very, very interesting to watch what new methods of work/income GKC can come up with. There really is no end to this guy's imagination.