Thursday, October 23, 2008

At the Sign of the Sugared Plum

This is the 3rd Review from Our Fall Into Reading Challenge!
By reviewer Greta Marlow
Title: At the Sign of the Sugared Plum
Author: Mary Hooper
Primary Audience/age group: 12+ (publisher suggests grades 5-8)
Genre: Historical fiction
# Of pages: 169
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Year of Release: 2003
Part of a Series? Yes, it’s first of two
Rating: 3 (View Scale)
Recommend: Yes

Description: (from book cover) “It is 1665 and Hannah is full of excitement at the prospect of her first trip to London. She is going to help her sister, Sarah, in her sweetmeats shop, ‘The Sugared Plum.’ But Hannah does not get the welcoming reception she expected. Sarah is horrified that Hannah did not get her message to stay away: the Plague is threatening to take hold of London. Through Hannah’s eyes, Mary Hooper brilliantly recreates the smells, sounds, and sights of seventeenth century London life. Hannah’s excitement at coming to the big city is vividly evoked, as is the growing terror of a seemingly unstoppable plague that takes hold of the city, street by street, house by house.”

Review: As people get ready to pull out the skeleton costumes and makeup to make themselves look like the dead, I wonder if we ever think about what our world would be like if it weren’t a game. This book does a great job of taking the reader back to the time of the terrible plague that wiped out nearly a third of London’s population in 1665. Hannah’s outlook changes from a carefree girl excited to be on an adventure to that of a young woman troubled by nightmares of the real horror around her. While the plot might be a little thin for more mature readers, the book is definitely worth reading because of the detail Hooper includes that lets the reader feel what it must have been like to live through those times.

Rating: 3, for some gruesome descriptions

Positive: Based on what I’ve said above, you might get the impression this book is depressing. Actually, Hannah and her sister Sarah show great resilience against giving in to the hopelessness that would be so natural in the circumstances they faced. They also show concern for some neighbors struck with the plague when others don’t. In the end, they take a great risk to help someone.

Spiritual Elements: Religion is part of the experience of the characters, especially since the government has ordered everyone to go to church, pray, and fast (sincerely or not) in an effort to turn God’s judgment from the city. However, the book also portrays the sense of futility many people felt toward religion when the praying and fasting seemed to have no effect.

Violence: The violence in the book comes as descriptions of the effects of the plague. Some scenes do seem like something from a horror movie, with plague victims wandering the streets at night, plague carts loaded and overloaded with bodies, bodies being carelessly dumped into huge pits. The descriptions don’t go past what I would consider to be a PG level, but it is disturbing to remember that all of this really happened.

Language: The word “whore” is thrown in a couple of times. Otherwise, no problems.

Sexual Content: Hannah meets a nice young man and longs to be kissed by him. (Spoiler alert!) However, it is not to be. There is also one section that discusses a rumored cure for plague that involves sleeping with a prostitute. But Hannah’s sister is quick to condemn that as ungodly.

One thing I found sort of alarming about the story was how people treated other people who were stricken with plague. There was such fear that even basic human kindness was abandoned.

Rating: 3, for violence and mild horror

Recommendation: This is another outstanding work of historical fiction, and I would encourage kids to read it (parents might judge how sensitive their children are to scary ideas). I think it provides a good opportunity for parents to talk with kids about how humans react to frightening events that seem completely out of their control – a lesson that could be valuable in even modern times.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn

This is the 2nd review from the Fall Into Reading 2008 challenge.
By reviewer Greta Marlow
Title: The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn (The Samurai Mysteries)
Author: Dorothy & Thomas Hoopler
Primary Audience/age group: 12+
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
# Of pages: 214
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of Release: 1999
Part of a Series? Yes, the Hooplers have written several books featuring these characters
Rating: 3 (View Scale)
Recommend: Yes

Description: (from book cover) “Fourteen-year-old Seikei dreams of being one of the legendary warriors, a samurai – but samurai are born, not made, and Seikei is a tea merchant’s son. Then a priceless ruby intended for the shogun – the military governor of Japan – is stolen by a ghost, and Seikei finds himself having to display all the courage of a samurai. He is the only person to have seen the thief, and now the famous samurai magistrate, Judge Ooka, needs Seikei’s help to solve the mystery. Soon the two are hot on the trail of the ruby – and an unforgettable adventure.”

Review: “So honorable! So beautifully innocent!” This is what the jewel thief says about Seikei, and I think it is an apt description of both Seikei and the book that tells his story. In his efforts to be like the samurai he aspires to be, Seikei tries to be honorable in all he does, even when it wouldn’t (I think) be expected of someone so young. In my opinion, that makes Seikei a very likeable character, which is the strength of the book. The mystery itself is not too difficult to unravel, but the reader will enjoy following Seikei along as he figures it out and as he deals with the contradictions between who he is and who he wants to be.

3, for violence

Positive: This book does an excellent job in presenting the Edo period of Japanese history, especially the class divisions and cultural achievements. Although there is a lot of history in the book, it is woven into the story in a credible, entertaining way – the reader never feels the author is “lecturing.” On a more personal level, Seikei’s sense of honor and his efforts to live up to it are admirable, especially when contrasted with adult characters who are full-fledged samurai and yet are not as honorable as this merchant’s son.

Spiritual Elements: I was surprised by how much religion played a role in this story. One of the main plotlines centered around a character who is a Christian in the time when it was illegal to be one in Japan. However, that character’s behavior seems to be more heavily influenced by the samurai code of honor. There is a lot of interesting cultural information about Japanese religion, including a chapter that deals with an offering to their goddess Amaterasu.

Violence: I was also surprised by the amount of violence in the book, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been, since it is about samurai. However, the violence is generally not gory or drawn-out (the climatic scene is a bit more violent than scenes in the rest of the book). I wouldn’t have reservations about letting a younger teen read the book. Since Seikei longs to be a samurai, there is quite a bit of “glorification” of the sword as the samurai weapon. There are a number of characters who either commit ritual suicide or are executed with the sword to uphold a sense of honor.

Language: The book doesn’t use any offensive language.

Sexual Content: The book doesn’t really have any sexual content. If there is any, it is so subtle I think it would be a stretch to be offended by it.

Some characters drink alcohol. Some readers might possibly be offended by the way Christianity is presented, but I think it’s important to remember the story is being told from the viewpoint of a Japanese character who wouldn’t understand the idea of a “suffering servant” god.

Rating: 3, for violence

Recommendation: I would definitely recommend this book, especially for boys who, like my son, are fascinated by Japanese culture thanks to some programs in the mainstream media. I would also recommend it to parents who are looking for a “cool” way to introduce their child to other cultures. It is outstanding historical fiction.