Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

This is the 7th review in our Fall Into Reading Challenge. To see the complete list of books click here.
By reviewer Greta Marlow
Title: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (The Wolves Chronicles)
Author: Joan Aiken
Primary Audience/age group: 11+ (because of vocabulary)
Genre: Adventure/"Gothic"
# Of pages: 168
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday
Year of Release: 1962
Part of a Series? Yes, the Wolves Chronicles
Rating: 4 (View Scale)
Recommend: Yes

Description: (from book jacket) “Wicked wolves without and a grim governess within threaten Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia when Bonnie’s parents leave Willoughby Chase for a sea voyage. Left in the care of the cruel Miss Slighcarp, the girls can hardly believe what is happening to their lovely, once happy home. The servants are dismissed, the furniture is sold and, dressed in rags, Bonnie and Sylvia are sent to a prisonlike orphan school. It seems as if the endless hours of drudgery will never cease. With the help of Simon the gooseboy and his flock, they escape. But where will they go? And how will they ever get Willoughby Chase free from the clutches of the evil Miss Slighcarp?”

Review: What is the saying – “Everything old is new again”? About halfway through this book, I realized why it seemed so familiar – it is a precursor, thirty years ago, for the Series of Unfortunate Events books that were so popular a few years ago. It’s all there – the bright children; the tall, evil villain; the supposed death of the parents in an accident; the impossibly cruel and seemingly hopeless situations the children find themselves in; the clueless family lawyer; even the high-flying vocabulary (although this book doesn’t define the words in the text the way the Unfortunate Events books do). The biggest difference is that this story wraps up in a happy ending instead of leading into the next hopeless installment.

Rating: 4 for mild language and mild to moderate violence

Recommend: Yes

Positive: In contrast to the cruelty of the villains, there are several characters who are kind and thoughtful to others. Bonnie, the rich little girl, is kind to the servants. She keeps a promise at the end to rescue the orphans from their miserable school.

Spiritual Elements: The cruel orphanage owner reads the Bible or a sermon to the children while they are doing their evening chores.

Violence: Violence comes in the form of mistreatment (like being locked in a closet and deprived of meals and warmth) administered by the cruel governess and the owner of the orphanage where the girls are sent. Early in the book, a wolf breaks through a train window and is stabbed with a fragment of the window. Although the wolves are built up as a big threat in the beginning of the book, they never really do anything.

Language: At the end of the book, Bonnie’s father says “d**n” a couple of times when he discovers what has happened to his home during his absence.

Sexual Content: None

Other: The parents in this book are clueless!

Recommendation: As I said earlier, this book is very much like the Unfortunate Events books (but it came first!). However, it is a little less cynical and does have a happy ending. If a child seems interested in the “Gothic/horror” genre (I use those terms loosely!) of children’s literature, parents might suggest this book as an alternative or supplement to the Unfortunate Events series.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Girl Named Disaster

This is the 6th review in our Fall Into Reading Challenge. To see the complete list of books click here.
By reviewer Greta Marlow
Title: A Girl Named Disaster
Author: Nancy Farmer
Primary Audience/age group: 14+
Genre: Adventure/”Coming of Age” story/Multicultural
# Of pages: 293
Publisher: Orchard Books
Year of Release: 1996
Part of a Series? No
Rating: 3 (View Scale)
Recommend: Yes, with reservation

Description: (from book jacket) “Her grandmother said, ‘The journey will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it will be worth it. Just think of finding your father….’ And so Nhamo, fleeing an impending marriage to a cruel man with three wives, sets out for Zimbabwe, alone on the Musengezi River. She is not yet twelve. Soon, strong currents sweep her canoe to the uncharted heart of Lake Cabora Bassa in Mozambique. As she struggles to escape drowning and starvation, she comes close to the luminous world of the African spirits. Loneliness drives her to join a baboon troop on an island, with near-deadly results. But Nhamo is bold and resourceful – and discovers in conversations with her dead mother and the Ancestors how to survive the terrors that seem to rise around her from all sides. Yet the greatest terror is still to come – after she again reaches civilization. Nhamo’s journey – of spirit as well as body – will keep readers enthralled to the very last page.”

Review: Well, it didn’t keep me enthralled to the very last page, but I have to admit, I felt compelled to continue reading this book until the end. I’ve never been a big fan of the “girl facing the dangers of nature alone with animal friends” genre (as in Julie of the Wolves or Island of the Blue Dolphins, which this book resembles). Several times I found myself feeling somewhat impatient when the narrative came to a stop so Nhamo could tell a story about the African spirits, and sometimes I wanted to shake her and say, “Quit letting yourself starve! Have some common sense and get off that island!” However, Nhamo is a sympathetic enough character that I wanted to see how her story ended.

Rating: 3 for more intense sequences of violence

Recommend: Yes, with reservation

Positive: Nhamo is resourceful and self-reliant. She works hard and manages to survive a journey one would think would be impossible for a young girl. The book also is a good example of multicultural literature, describing life in a primitive African village and set against the background of the civil wars in the history of southern Africa.

Spiritual Elements: Spiritual elements are at the heart of this book. It is because of a ngozi (angry, revengeful spirit) who is revealed by a muvuki (what we would call a witch doctor) that she has to leave her home. During her journey, Nhamo converses on a regular basis with the spirits of her dead mother and a dead villager whose boat she has taken to escape the village. She also gets advice from the njuzu, the water spirits, and makes sure she makes appropriate sacrifices to thank them and the Ancestors. One of the most disturbing parts of the book is when she encounters the spirit of a witch, who later possesses her and has to be exorcised by the Vapostori (a sect of Christians that was formed in Africa in 1932). The book also gives Nhamo’s reactions to Christianity, which may disturb some readers, since she interprets it through the lens of her spirit religion.

Violence: Although the violence isn’t glorified, there is quite a bit of it inherent in the story. It’s taken for granted that people have the right to beat other people who displease them. Nhamo has to kill animals to provide food for herself, and the grossest scene of violence comes with her first experience of hunting. The most disturbing scenes of violence, though, come when Nhamo is possessed by the witch and kills a dog that is chasing her away from white people’s houses, and then again later when she attacks another dog who reminds her of the first one.

Language: It seems that I remember a few offensive words, but a very few. The most offensive thing I remember is the witch’s name (Long Teats).

Sexual Content: The sexual content of the book is centered around menstruation as a sign of womanhood. The story describes the rituals that Nhamo’s family undertakes when her cousin has her first period and becomes a marriageable young woman. Later, when Nhamo is on her journey, she reaches the same milestone. It’s not a major theme in the book, but it is mentioned now and then. At the end of the book, Nhamo finds out her mother was already pregnant when she married Nhamo’s father.

Other: There is a LOT of information about southern Africa in this book, ranging from the native religion, to the types of plants and animals, to the weather patterns, to the interaction between natives and whites. Although I got annoyed that Nhamo would go into “storytelling” mode and pause the narrative, her stories were interesting. Given that I knew next to nothing about Africa before reading the book, I think it has value as a teaching tool by managing to work all these elements into a book that reads like a story instead of a textbook. There are also sections at the end of the book that provide a glossary of the African words used in the story and an overview of the spirit religion.

Recommendation: I would suggest this book for more mature teens. I think younger kids would be turned off by the frequent use of African words and embarrassed by the frank way the book talks about menstruation. The focus on the spirit world and its differences to Christianity might be something parents and teens could discuss, as well.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book Giveaway! Outcasts of Skagaray

Congrats to Rachel who won the drawing! Check back soon for another book giveaway!

We are giving away our review copy of Outcasts Of Skagaray by Andrew Clarke. You can read the book review here. I enjoyed the book and recommended it for ages 13+. Leave a comment with an email address that we can reach you at, if we draw your name!

You can go here to see our complete Fall Into Reading 2008 list!

The drawing will be at 4pm on Thursday, November 20th.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


By Reviewer Shawna (originally posted February 23, 2008)

Title: Twilight
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Primary Audience/age group: Young Adult
Genre: Thriller, Romance
# Of pages: 498
Year of Release: 2005
Part of a Series? Yes, 1 of 4
Rating: 2 View Scale
Recommend? No (See Below)

Description: The budding romance between Bella and Edward is anything but typical. It’s downright scary. Bella Swan is distinctively average herself until she finds the love of her life Edward in the gloomy little town of Forks. She discovers that he and his family are vampires, but even that doesn’t stop her from falling in love.

Review: Stephenie Meyer brings a new twist to the traditional vampire stories of death and mayhem. She weaves a tale of forbidden love between Edward and Bella that draws you in with utter abandon. The passion between them is so mesmerizing that you forget about the world around you. And that’s the main problem. It leads your mind away - ever so subtlety - down a road you want to take but knowingly will regret later.

Positive: Compared to most other vampire books, this one is much less gory. The Cullen family has chosen to rebel against their inborn desire to kill humans and hunt overpopulated animals instead. Carlisle, Edward’s adoptive father, has even chosen to become a doctor in order to save lives instead of take them. They are truly a family that lives by their convictions.

Spiritual Elements: Carlisle’s father was a Protestant pastor in the early 1600’s. Carlisle was following in his father’s footsteps until he was transformed into a vampire. His deeply-rooted religious beliefs caused him to despise what he had become, but he eventually came to the realization that he could control his blood lust, to a degree. He chose instead to hunt overpopulated animals and start a coven of vampires who would choose to follow his beliefs as well.

The vampires are compared to gods in regards to their remarkable beauty and immortal nature.

Violence: As a young vampire, Emmett, Edward’s brother gives into temptation and kills two unsuspecting women, which he later regrets. Before becoming a vampire, Esme, Edward’s adoptive mother, runs off a cliff and kills herself after her child dies. Carlisle, Edward’s adoptive father, brings her back to life by turning her into a vampire.

Bella is almost attacked by four men who have malice on their minds. She is rescued by Edward.

James, a visiting vampire, is a tracker, which means he hunts (tracks) humans with his senses in order to kill them. He has is sites set on Bella. Spoiler Warning: He traps her by telling her he will kill her mother. Then he attacks her, throwing her into a mirrored wall and breaking her leg. The only way to stop him is for the Cullen family to kill him. It is implied that they rip him to shreds and burn the body in order to succeed. The scene is somewhat bloody.

Language: H*** and different forms of d*** are mentioned a few times. At one point, Bella “internally curs[es] Jessica to the fiery parts of Hades” for telling another student a secret.

Sexual Content: To be perfectly honest, there are no inappropriate love scenes or risqué behavior to mention. But, the book is very intense, passionate, and sensual in regards to the love between Bella and Edward. They are star-crossed lovers, who have a huge obstacle between them. Edward is a vampire, and although he’s very much in love with Bella, he’s always tempted by her blood. He kisses her seductively several times. Edward tells Bella that they will never be able to be totally intimate because of his fear that he may lose control and kill her.

After Bella meets Edward, she begins to dream of him every night. He eventually admits that he watches her through her window every night. He is so afraid of losing her, he wants to protect her at every moment. He even spends the night in her bedroom, holding her until she falls asleep. Her father is unaware or else he would not approve.

The Cullen family consists of a mother and father, three adopted sons and two adopted daughters. They live in this manner as not to draw attention to themselves. The rumor going around school is that the children live as couples, which is true to an extent. Emmett and Rosalie are married, but their façade is that they act as brother and sister. Alice and Jasper are a couple as well, but there is no further mention of their relationship.

Other: Bella’s parents are divorced and her mother has remarried. In order to gain information about the Cullen family, Bella flirts with a younger boy. Bella is so nervous about seeing Edward, she takes cold medicine to fall asleep. There is a crude joke about heroine. Edward can hear others thoughts, and Alice can see the future to a degree. Bella is rude and disrespectful to a concerned adult.

Rating: 2 for intense sensuality/passion

Recommendation: Even though I greatly enjoyed the book, I think that is a bit too intense and that Bella and Edward's relationship could quickly and easily become very physical. It however does not result in premarital sex although their relationship is extremely passionate. Their behavior towards each other seems to be quite obsessive as well. The electricity between Edward and Bella was very mesmerizing. The book drew me in in such a way that my mind took their relationship way beyond what was actually written. This is a subject that hits very close to home for me. I love to read a good love story, but I would prefer a more God-centered tale that teaches about God’s perfect plan of intimacy within the context of marriage. I want to teach my daughter to have a pure heart and mind. Although the book is extremely well written and engaging, I am not able to recommend it to teens under 18.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Rowan of Rin

This is the 5th review in our Fall Into Reading Challenge. To see the complete list of books click here.
By reviewer Greta Marlow
Rowan of Rin (Rowan of Rin #1)
Author: Emily Rodda
Primary Audience/age group: 9-12
Genre: Fantasy-adventure
# Of pages: 151
Publisher: Scholastic
Year of Release: 1993
Part of a Series? Yes, it’s first of several
Rating: 5 (View Scale)
Recommend: Yes

Description: (from School Library Journal) “The people of Rin are strong and brave, except for young Rowan. He spends his time caring for the bukshah, the gentle beasts that the villagers depend on for their survival. When their stream suddenly stops flowing and the bukshah are in danger of dying, six of the strongest, bravest villagers decide to climb the Mountain, hoping to avoid the Dragon that lives there, to find out what has happened. However, Sheba the Wise Woman is the only one who knows the way, and she has decided that Rowan must accompany the party, so she gives them a magic map that can only be read if he is holding it. Rowan starts off as fragile and a little whiny, but improves steadily, especially as he begins to realize that he plays an important role in the expedition. He is able to succeed through his own efforts, not through magic. The adults are one-dimensional at first, but as Rowan learns more about them, so do readers, and two of them prove to have unexpected depth. Traditional fantasy elements and setting are presented in a fast-moving and enjoyable tale that should be an easy sell to fantasy lovers.”

Review: This is a good story to introduce younger children to the fantasy-adventure genre. It has a character they will be able to identify with – shy Rowan who is always discounted by the adults. Although Rowan starts out as the weakest and most frightened member of the quest team, he keeps striving to do what must be done, motivated by his love and sense of responsibility for the animals in his care. In the end, he proves to be the bravest and strongest member of the team. I think young readers will appreciate the adventures Rowan faces and will get a sense of empowerment from the way Rowan learns to be strong enough to meet the challenges.

Rating: 5

Positive: Rowan learns that his snap judgments of other people aren’t always correct. When faced with a dangerous challenge, he responds with kindness rather than by fighting.

Spiritual Elements: Magic plays a role in the book. An old wise woman goes into a trance to predict the outcome of their quest. Rowan is the only one who can reveal what is on the magical map.

Violence: The story has adventure-related violence, such as fighting off a horde of spiders and facing a dragon. But it’s not presented in a scary way.

Language: No problems.

Sexual Content: None.

If a child is really perceptive, he/she may pick up on messages about prejudice. One of the characters had one parent who was from Rin and one parent who was a “Traveler.” As a result, that character faced some ridicule from some of the people of Rin. I think children will also relate to the way Rowan feels about the bukshah (which I picture as being like big, nice water buffalo!).

Rating: 5

Recommendation: This book is a kind and gentle story in which a young boy grows to have confidence in himself and to understand that everyone has some kind of fear. But it’s also a really cool adventure story!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Outcasts of Skagaray

This is the 4th review in our Fall Reading Challenge.
By Reviewer Angi
Title: Outcasts Of Skagaray
Author: Andrew Clarke
Primary Audience/age group: 13+
Genre: Fantasy
# Of pages: 240
Publisher: VMI Publishing
Year of Release: 2006
Part of a Series? No
Rating: 3 (View Scale)
Recommend? Yes!

Description: The world of Skagaray is dark and bleak but there is the possibility of beauty and goodness too. The people of Skagaray respect strength, and hardness, and make gods in their own image to please themselves. They reject those they consider weak, or unworthy, and make outcasts of them. But one among them rejects their cruelty, and will not take part in the brutality they call their Proving. This is Australian Andrew Clarke’s first novel.

Review: Outcasts of Skagaray started out slow, it took me about 50 pages to “get into” the book, but once I did, it was a fun, exciting read. This is a story about change. Tarran, the main character “had never seen a way of life that was not savage and harsh. But something inside him was sure that people could be different”. He musters up the courage to leave Skagaray, where only the strong are honored and the weak are left to die. Once he is an Outcast his fear of the Skagaray ways turns to anger, which eventually yields to love. A foreigner, Ambrand returns to the area and tells Tarran about the One True God, who “was killed but got up from the dead”. This God “does not murder the weak”, He teaches that “love is stronger than hate.” Tarran and Ambrand lead the fight against the evil forces at work in Skagaray. They seek to spread the news that there is a different way to live, a better way, where the citizens are free from the laws of hate, killing, slavery and shame.
I really liked Tarran and rooted for him the entire story. I had a hard time telling many of the characters apart/keeping them straight - I think because they had such different names. The story was about clear good versus evil and how every person must choose to which side they belong.

Rating: 3, for violent/confrontational situations

Positive: Tarran was a great character - he knew that the life he was living was wrong, and left that life. He helped others leave their way of life and once he knew the Truth, he shared that with everyone he could.

Spiritual Elements: As you can read in my review, the people of Skagaray must choose between good and evil. Do they continue to worship the Kirkril as they have been taught their whole lives - or the One True God who they just learned about?

Violence: I found the story to be quite violent. There aren’t any gory details of blood and guts - but just many references to their ways as being slayers, hunters, killers. It is the will of the Skagaray gods that the “strong shall live by killing. Life is a battle and you are to be warriors. The mark of the warrior is blood, the destruction of enemies, prey taken, the defeat of another. The lives you take enlarge you”.

Language: None

Sexual Content: None

Other: Some of the evil elders drank wine.

Recommendation: I would recommend this book to boys (and girls) who like this genre, ages 13+. I know my son will enjoy it! I feel like it is too violent for children under 13

To win a copy of this book - go here to enter!