The Shunning by Beverly Lewis

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Title: The Shunning by Beverly Lewis

Notable: Book #1 in The Heritage of Lancaster County series

Premise:

Katie Lapp is a young Amish woman who is set to marry Bishop John Beiler.  Her heart still belongs to her first love, Dan, who tragically drowned at sea.  She hopes that her marriage to John will give her a new start in life and restore some happiness that she’s been missing.  Just before Katie’s wedding, a family secret comes to light that tears her world apart and she must decide which path is the right one to take.

My thoughts:

This is not my normal reading material at all, so I had a bit of a tough time getting into it.  The book starts out fairly slow, so that contributed as well.  Once I got several chapters in, the action and intrigue picked up and then I couldn’t put it down!  The best way I can describe this story is to say that if a Hallmark movie were to become a book, this would be it.  If that’s too feel-good and emotional for you, you would have a tough time with this book.

There is a strong Christian element to the story, but it didn’t seem out of character, given that it’s about the Amish.  I appreciate all of the small details that the author included about the Amish way of life.  You can tell that she really did her homework.  The story itself is pretty good.  I wasn’t expecting rip-roaring suspense, but it kept my interest and made me want to read the next in the series.

I don’t want to give away the plot, but suffice it to say that Katie goes through an identity crisis of sorts.  She has to figure out what her future life will look like and deal with the consequences of her choice.  It’s rather heartbreaking, really.

I recommend The Shunning to those who enjoy tame romantic stories and reading about the Amish.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

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Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

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Title: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Premise:

Phileas Fogg, the stoic and predictable Englishman that he is, decides to go on a trip around the world because of a wager.  He bets his whist companions £20,000 that he can make the trip in eighty days.  Fogg’s servant Passepartout accompanies him, as well as a wily detective who believes Fogg to be a notorious bank robber.  They have many adventures and setbacks along the way, even rescuing a damsel in distress, but will they make it back to London in time to win the bet?

My thoughts:

The first Jules Verne book I read was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I had my own copy lined up on the shelf in my bunk bed and it was my first introduction to science fiction as a kid.  Ever since then, I’ve loved Jules Verne’s fantastical adventure stories.

Though Jules Verne is best known for his science fiction, this book doesn’t exactly fit into that category.  It capitalizes on elements of the industrial age, such as the great strides made in dependable and quick transportation.  It truly was a marvel how quickly one could traverse the globe, compared to what was possible only a short time previously.

The story is fairly simple — a man travels around the world as quickly as possible, encountering several obstacles along the way.  That’s it in a nutshell.  The character development isn’t stellar and there are a TON of place names, but despite those very slight criticisms, I loved the story.  It’s so very readable and I love a good adventure story!

As far as classic literature goes, this book has fairly accessible language.  It’s also a largely action-driven story, so those two considerations make this a good book to start your journey into classic literature.

I recommend Around the World in Eighty Days to fans of early science fiction and those who enjoy classic literature.

Possible Objections:

  • One character gets high in an opium den
  • Native people referred to as “savages” a few times
  • Overtly English-centric attitude throughout

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum

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Title: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum

Premise:

This is the life story of a man named Claus (later known as Santa Claus).  It starts with his baby years, when he was abandoned near the forest and a kind-hearted nymph named Necile adopted him as her own.  Claus grew up in an enchanted forest, but when he reached adulthood, he took his place in the world of man.  From his home in the Laughing Valley, Claus spreads happiness to the children of the world by making and delivering toys.  This story talks about his life’s work and how a few common Christmas traditions came to be.

My thoughts:

My son and I just finished reading this for school.  The first time I read it was several years ago and I was quite taken with it back then.  Though the language is quaint and a little old-fashioned, by son thoroughly enjoyed the book and couldn’t wait until we could read the next chapter.

Baum’s story about Santa Claus is more than just a jolly old elf who likes to eat cookies.  His is an active and philanthropic man who makes it his life’s work to bring joy to others.  I like how Santa serves as a middleman between the world of mortals and immortals in this story, drawing the immortals into helping humanity.  I’m sure I’ll be coming back to this book again in a few years so I can read it with my younger girls.  I know they will love the story and I think this is a great family read-aloud!

I recommend The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus to young readers, families and anyone else who wants to learn more about Santa’s history (at least according to Baum).

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

Snowbound Mystery by Gertrude Chandler Warner

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Title: Snowbound Mystery by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Notable: Book #13 in The Boxcar Children series

Premise:

The Alden siblings go to a hunter’s cabin in the woods to spend a week out in the wilderness.  When a freak snow storm hits, they are stuck in the cabin, determined to make the best of it until their grandfather can send help.  A local family who runs the small store nearby treks out to the cabin to make sure the children are okay.  While they all await rescue, the Aldens help solve a mystery that the Nelson family has been trying to uncover for many years.

My thoughts:

I feel like the Boxcar Children books are pretty formulaic.  If you’ve read one, you know what subsequent books will be like.  This one is no exception.  Somehow these children end up fending for themselves or at least acting independently no matter what situation they find themselves in.  Their grandfather must feel pretty strongly that they should be encouraged to become independent.  Anyhow, he lets them go off to stay in a cabin in the woods for a week by themselves.  This mama objects!

The major event in the story is when the Aldens help solve a mystery for the Nelson family.  I don’t want to give it away, but the consequence is that it totally transforms their life.  They’re no longer stuck hoping for a brighter future, but can go ahead and realize their dreams.  It’s a feel-good ending.  🙂

I recommend Snowbound Mystery to younger readers who enjoy lighthearted mysteries.  It would also be a good book to read aloud to your kids.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

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Title: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

Notable: Newbery Honor Book, 1979

Premise:

Gilly Hopkins is in foster care and about to enter a new home.  She wants nothing more than for her mother to swoop in and reclaim her, but alas, it’s not to be.  Gilly’s new home is with a large, motherly woman named Trotter and her foster son, William Ernest.  Gilly’s prejudices come to the forefront when she realizes that she’ll be expected to interact closely with African Americans, and when she passes judgment on Trotter and W. E.  Eventually though, Gilly realizes that sometimes our dreams aren’t what they’re cracked up to be, and making the best of our current situation can turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

My thoughts:

This is a really intense book!  Don’t expect to sit down and just float through it like you’re riding on a big, fluffy cloud.  Paterson doesn’t take shortcuts with her characters and she’s definitely not afraid of giving them flaws.  The main character, Gilly, is one of the most judgmental kids you’ll ever meet in a story, but it’s hard not to root for her.  She’s so miserably unhappy, that Gilly spews her vitriol on everyone around her, picking out traits in others to belittle and make fun of.

She doesn’t like Trotter because she’s overweight; she doesn’t like W. E. because she thinks he’s stupid; she doesn’t like her neighbor or new teacher because they’re black.  In all of these relationships, we see Gilly gradually progress into a new understanding about who they are.  She comes to value each of them and realizes that love and acceptance are possible with people who are different, and not part of your nuclear family.  She never thought she’d come to love these people, but they found a way to infiltrate her heart.  There is no easy fairy-tale ending to the story, but readers are left with the message that we should make the best of our situation in life and look for joy and contentment in what we have today.

As a parent, I have to warn you about the offensive bits in this story.  I wouldn’t want my younger child picking it up and thinking that it’s okay to copy Gilly’s language.  She uses totally inappropriate phrases to talk about Trotter, W. E., Mr. Randolph and Ms. Harris.  In one part the n-word is very clearly implied.  By the end of the book, Gilly’s language has become much tamer, but a child has to be old enough to realize that Gilly’s language is not something to emulate.

I recommend The Great Gilly Hopkins to those who enjoy coming of age novels which tug at your heart strings and are kind of edgy.

Possible Objections:

  • Offensive language (degrading those who are obese, African American, have special needs, etc.)
  • Mild epithets (d-word & hell)

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

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Title: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Notable: Newbery Honor Book, 1998

Premise:

When Ella is born she is given the “gift” of obedience by a well-meaning, but clueless fairy.  No matter the order, Ella must always obey.  After Ella’s mother dies, her father eventually remarries and Ella must go to finishing school with her two obnoxious stepsisters, Hattie and Olive.  When Hattie gives Ella a terrible order, she runs away so that it won’t have to be fulfilled.  Eventually Ella finds her true love and escapes the curse.

My thoughts:

This book was so much fun!  A number of years ago I watched the movie “Ella Enchanted,” without every having read the book.  I thought the movie was really cute, but now I have to say that I like the book even more.  As with most books which have been made into movies, the book far surpasses the movie.  The character development in the book was much more satisfying.

Ella’s character in the book is just so darn likable!  She’s spunky, funny, down-to-earth, affectionate, compassionate, and knows her own mind.  Even though she suffers a lot because of her curse/gift, Ella doesn’t give up and keeps trying to exert her own will.  Her relationship with Char was very satisfying.  It’s deep and meaningful, without any hints at inappropriate conduct between the young people.  It’s so refreshing to see a love interest for young people which maintains its innocence.  That’s a rare thing nowadays.

I recommend Ella Enchanted to anyone who enjoys a good fairy tale!  It’s a unique take on the Cinderella story.

Possible Objections:

  • Some talk about ogres eating people

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

OTHER ELLA ENCHANTED POSTS:

Micro by Michael Crichton & Richard Preston

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Title: Micro by Michael Crichton & Richard Preston

Premise:

A group of graduate students is caught up in a web of intrigue, with Vin Drake and his microbiology company, Nanigen, at its center.  The students find themselves alone in dangerous wilderness and they have to use all of their scientific training and knowledge to try and survive.

My thoughts:

The first thing you need to know is that I LOVE me some good Crichton!  I read my first Crichton books in middle school when I found Terminal Man and Andromeda Strain on the school’s bookshelf.  So when I found this book at the thrift store, I was very excited to read a new book by this beloved author.

Honestly, I still haven’t arrived at a decisive conclusion about whether or not I truly like Micro.  The story is definitely Crichton in concept, but the writing doesn’t always match his style.  Obviously this book had input from Richard Preston, and I think that’s probably where it fails in stacking up to Crichton’s other works.  Crichton had a precision in his writing which is missing in parts of this book.  My other criticism is that the characters tended to get preachy about nature at very odd times.  Who would launch into a speech about the superiority of nature when they’re trekking through jungle on a very tight timeline to save their lives?  Well, apparently these people would.

Even though I wasn’t blown away by the writing, the premise of the story was great.  It brings up some questions about technology and the ethics of how we use it, as well as exploring the tiny world all around us.  When you shrink people down so that the ground becomes a jungle, all of the creepy crawlies get a whole lot scarier.

I recommend Micro to Crichton fans.  You’ll want to read it to round out your knowledge of all of his works, but it probably won’t be your favorite.

Possible Objections:

  • Violence & gore
  • 1 sexual encounter
  • Profanity

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

One Trick Pony by Nathan Hale

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Title: One Trick Pony by Nathan Hale

Premise:

The earth is being decimated by an alien species that is harvesting all of its technology.  A traveling band of humans is trying to salvage as much history as they can while staying one step ahead of the aliens.

My thoughts:

This was a really unique book.  The landscape and characters are interesting and imaginative, but definitely on the bleak side.  Imagine big swaths of the earth just cut right out.  And freaky aliens who are scooping up anything on earth which contains technology.  That will give you an idea of just how desolate the earth is in this story.

The action centers around a group of children who are out exploring and accidentally draw the attention of the aliens.  They try to evade them, but end up right at the heart of the alien enclave.  I won’t tell you the end because that would just wreck the story, but it’s satisfying.

I recommend One Trick Pony to fans of dystopian science fiction.  If you like aliens, this would be right up your alley!

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

The Mystery in the Snow by Gertrude Chandler Warner

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Title: The Mystery in the Snow by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Notable: Book #32 in The Boxcar Children series

Premise:

The Alden children visit a ski resort with their grandfather and get to enter a winter event competition.  When it seems like the contest is being sabotaged, it’s up to the Alden children to figure out who is ruining it and why.

My thoughts:

You can count on The Boxcar Children for innocent and simple mystery stories for kids.  While there’s nothing profound in this book, it keeps kids engaged by presenting a mystery which they try to unravel.  When I was a kid I loved this series and it still holds somewhat of a magical, mystical quality for me.

The story itself is pretty simple.  The kids enter a contest which features skiing, ice skating, sledding, snow sculpture and ice sculpture.  Two teams compete and at the end they hold an awards ceremony.  From the beginning though, the competition seems to be experiencing an awful lot of misfortune, from a missing key to other peoples’ work being ruined.  This would be an especially appropriate story during the Christmas season, or for kids who enjoy outdoor winter activities.

I recommend The Mystery in the Snow to children who enjoy mysteries without any objectionable material.  It would also be suitable to read aloud to your family.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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Title: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Premise:

Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly old man who hates all things cheerful and unprofitable–including and especially Christmas!  Scrooge’s deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, sends three ghostly spirits to visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve.  Can they help him realize the error of his ways before it is too late and he suffers the same torturous fate as his partner?

My thoughts:

Initially I had thought I’d be able to read this book aloud with my 10-year-old son, but about halfway through the first chapter, I realized that his attention was waning.  The language was a bit complex for him and it just wasn’t holding his interest.  He doesn’t have much patience for stories which take a little while to get going.

I decided to read it by myself and it was a really nice story to complement all of the Christmas festivities going on around me.  The story didn’t propel itself forward for me, but it may have been partially due to the fact that I have a lot on my plate right now getting ready for Christmas, and my attention tends to wander to my to-do list.  My favorite aspect of the story is the way it makes you feel about Christmas–all the nostalgia and the appreciation for all of the wonderful things during this time of year.  Dickens’ story actually had an instrumental and lasting influence on our Western ideals about Christmas, the true meaning of the holiday and how we observe it today.

I recommend A Christmas Carol to kids in middle school and up, or to families to enjoy together during Christmas.  If you share it with younger kids, you’ll have to do some explaining about the more complex language.

Rating: 5 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

Grandfather’s Dance by Patricia MacLachlan

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Title: Grandfather’s Dance by Patricia MacLachlan

Notable: Book #5 in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series

Premise:

This story picks up a short while after the previous one left off.  Jack is now a toddler/preschooler and acts just like his grandpa, John.  Cassie has come to terms with the family’s new addition and she can’t help but love her little brother.  Anna and Justin finally marry, which necessitates a visit from the Maine relatives.  The joyous mood is short-lived, however, when tragedy strikes.

My thoughts:

Well,  I finally finished the Sarah, Plain and Tall series!  It’s a bittersweet ending because I always feel sad when a story featuring some of my favorite characters comes to an end.

In this book, little Jack fairly worships the ground his grandfather walks on and tries to emulate him in all he does.  Poor grandfather is finding it harder and harder to keep up with the rest of the family because of his failing health.  Each family member has to confront the prospect of a future spent without their father/grandfather, and come to terms with that eventuality.

This is a good story for introducing kids to mortality and helping them see that death is an unavoidable part of life.  For kids who might be facing the loss of a grandparent, I think this could be a very cathartic read.  I’ll confess–it made me cry.

I recommend Grandfather’s Dance to kids who are reading beginner chapter books, or as a touching family read aloud.

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

OTHER SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL SERIES POSTS:

More Perfect than the Moon by Patricia MacLachlan

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Title: More Perfect than the Moon by Patricia MacLachlan

Notable: Book #4 in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series

Premise:

Cassie Witting is now the family member whose responsibility it is to write in the journal.  Cassie enjoys observing others and writing make-believe stories about them.  When Cassie finds out that Sarah is going to have a baby, she thinks the baby will come between herself and her mama.  She hopes that if she makes up her own story about the baby, perhaps nothing will change and that Sarah will still love her best.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed this book as a continuation of the previous three in the series.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t my favorite in the series.  I think it was because there was so very little that actually happened in the plot line.  It’s basically about Sarah getting pregnant, the difficulties she has as an older pregnant woman, and Cassie’s resentment about the new baby.  It’s a nicely done story, and I can see it being a good read for a child who isn’t thrilled with the idea of a new baby being added to their family.

Probably the most satisfying part of the story for me, was in seeing Grandfather’s role in the family expand.  In the last book he had just been fully admitted as a member of the Witting family, but in this book he has really found his position in the family.  He’s a confidant and mentor to the children, a helper to the adults, and a patriarch to the whole Witting family.

I recommend More Perfect than the Moon to kids who are reading beginner chapter books, or as a touching family read aloud.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

OTHER SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL SERIES POSTS:

The Littles Go to School by John Peterson

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Title: The Littles Go to School by John Peterson

Premise:

Lucy Little is worried about going to school for the first time.  Her family reassures her that she will enjoy it, but she’s still scared.  When Tom and Lucy find themselves accidentally transported to school in the gerbils’ cage, Lucy gets a chance to explore the school and find out how fun it really can be.

My thoughts:

My son and I just finished this chapter book for school.  I think we may have made it through all the Littles books we own!  For some reason this wasn’t my favorite Littles book.  I think it may be because the action and adventure was very tame, apart from their being transported to the school by mistake.

My son enjoyed it and got a kick out of the silly things Tom and Lucy did while exploring the school, so I suppose it’s a bit more appealing to kids.  It may have also sounded similar to our homeschooling experiences.  Just like us, Tom and Lucy do the majority of their school work at home through mostly child-led activities.  They go to the “big school” for one week per year to meet with their classmates and teacher, Ms. Beta Gogg.

I recommend The Littles Go to School to those who are already fans of the Littles.

Rating: 3 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

Caleb’s Story by Patricia MacLachlan

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Title: Caleb’s Story by Patricia MacLachlan

Notable: Book #3 in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series

Premise:

Anna has now left home to finish school and work in town.  It is Caleb’s turn to write in the family journal and the new topic is the appearance of a mysterious stranger named John.  When the family finds out who he really is, it causes some major consternation and Jacob must learn to forgive if their family is to survive.

My thoughts:

The third book in the series is right in line with the previous two in terms of style and subject matter.  In this volume we get to see Cassie (the youngest daughter) as a young girl and Caleb has taken on a much more mature role in the family.  I loved the part that he had to play in teaching John a new skill.  Seriously, if I tell you want it is, I’ll spoil the book for you.

The same overarching theme of family is explored in this book, with the emphasis being on forgiveness and fresh starts.  I still don’t know how MacLachlan does it, but she packs very moving stories into small packages.  Bravo!

I recommend Caleb’s Story to young people who enjoy stories about early American settlers.

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

OTHER SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL SERIES POSTS:

 

Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan

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Title: Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan

Notable: Book #2 in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series

Premise:

Sarah and Papa have been married a year, and Anna and Caleb have come to know Sarah as their mother.  However, hard times hit when there is a drought on the prairie.  Can Sarah cope with the difficulties of prairie life, or will she return home to her beloved Maine?

My thoughts:

Like the first book in the series, this one is also short and to the point.  Through a relatively simple story, MacLachlan goes straight to the heart in examining the topics of family, hardship and commitment.

Life on the prairie ends up being harder than Sarah ever imagined, and she’s not sure if she can cope with the prolonged drought which threatens their home, livestock and very existence.  I enjoyed seeing the children’s relationship with Sarah’s relatives develop.  Even though they left the prairie to visit Sarah’s family, they felt secure in the knowledge that Sarah saw them as her children and didn’t simply leave them behind.  The development at the end cements their status as a family even more.  No spoilers!

I recommend Skylark to young people who enjoy stories about early American settlers.

Possible Objections:

  • One of Sarah’s aunts goes skinny-dipping

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

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