Tag Archives: family drama

Book Review: Countdown Is a Childlike Recollection

Standard

I picked up Countdown by Deborah Wiles more for its unique format, which uses photographs, pamphlets, quotes, song lyrics, and other memorabilia of the 60s between chapters to place the reader within the time and to broaden the scope of the book’s plot by showing what is happening outside of the protagonist’s personal story, than for its synopsis.  Definitely it’s outside of the genre that I prefer, being a realistic, wartime novel.  The story follows protagonist Franny Chapman, a young girl living in Camp Springs, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C., in 1962, during the Cold War, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Franny’s father works on the air force base in Camp Springs.  Her grandfather is also a war veteran who lives with the family and suffers from PTSD.  Franny lives in fear: fear of death, fear of humiliation, fear of social isolation.  As much as Wiles shows us the 1960s, she also shows us the typical childhood of a child in the 1960s, of any child of any time, dealing with the frustrations of school, the drama of trying to belong in a peer group, childhood crushes, secrets kept from parents, family drama, etc.

I appreciate Wiles’ rather accurate representation of childhood.  Wiles admits in an author’s note at the novel’s end that she drew greatly from her own childhood recollections, and Countdown does read almost like creative nonfiction, again to her credit.  I appreciate that this is a wartime novel that I didn’t loathe (usually I do), but then again, this is not a typical wartime novel that focuses on soldiers, but it focuses instead on the civilians, whose way of life I am more comfortable sharing.

Wiles touched on many of the aspects of American life and controversy in the 1960s (or as far as my scant knowledge is aware): PTSD, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the growing awareness of racial inequality….  Franny, being young and mainly unaware of the intricacies of these situations, was not a narrator to give me any great insight into these events; rather Franny’s perspective offered the raw, emotional fear that these events inspired in the average citizen.

And there’s “fear” again.  I guess if I had to, I would say that that was the overarching impression that this book gave me of the 60s: fear paired with a desire for 50s normality (white picket fence, manicured lawn, and 2.5 kids, et al.).  Whether this was the overarching feeling of the 60s or if it was merely Wiles’ adolescent impression of the time, I do not know.

Readers of the book should not look for deep insight into the 60s but a glance, as if flipping quickly through the pages of a newspaper of the time, and should rather look forward to a realistic childhood adventure and drama, which are well-portrayed, mixing the ordinary with the extraordinary, but are not as well-executed as some that I have seen.

***

Wiles, Deborah.  The Sixties Trilogy, Book 1: Countdown.  New York: Scholastic, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Deborah Wiles or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Worm Whisperer Should Climb to Great Heights

Standard

Click to visit the publisher's website for links to purchase, summary, author bio, excerpt, and reviews.

The Worm Whisperer by Betty Hicks, of which I won an ARC through Goodreads, is a solid piece of middle-grade realistic fiction.  Stylistically, I have very little to say against it.  Its language uses the proper tone for its audience.  The details are all clear as a video.  It avoids clichés.  It captures the rural feel of Appalachian Banner Elk, NC.

A few words of caution before you take my word for it:

1) Betty Hicks is a sister from my alma mater; I’m biased, but I do think that she learned her lessons well (not all of us have).

2) My sister is currently attending Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk.  I’ve visited the town and had a good long talk with a man who owns a store that sells woolly worm themed tourist goods, but I have never attended the Woolly Worm Festival.

MAJOR spoilers ahead!

Hicks had the gall to seem to kill the woolly worm, Tink, to which she had been making her reader and main character attached.  I was impressed that she would do such a thing in a middle-grade book.  Tink is essentially Ellis’ best friend and the only creature (apart from the duck, Puddles, and her ducklings, six of which Hicks does kill) with whom Ellis can be honest.  Things seem to be tumbling apart and Hicks wisely has made victory at the Woolly Worm Festival important in so many ways for the charming Ellis that the reader is compelled to wonder how this can possibly end well.  But end well it does—though not in the way that Ellis expects.  Ellis’ loss at the Woolly Worm Festival is yet another bold decision by Hicks.

If there is one stylistic flaw it is that Hicks tries to include too much and impose too much significance upon details—like Puddles the duck and her dead ducklings.  Ellis is dealing with so much in the story—his father’s injury, new responsibilities at home, an altered family dynamic, poverty, a boyhood crush, not being taken seriously by his peers, finding true friends, competition, a bully—that I’m not sure that his gripe with his mother, forced because of his father’s injury to work several jobs and become and absent parent, is given the attention necessary for me to feel that Puddle’s dead ducklings were more than a tangent.  But I find this stylistic flaw a reasonably forgivable one—at least since it was not very strongly felt.  It is more impressive to me that The Worm Whisperer can cradle as much as it does.

If I can say anything else against the story its that I’d have liked to spend a little more time in the happily ever after, to be reassured that the family dynamic returns to something more palatable to Ellis, that he can maybe hold hands with Alice, that he enjoy his friends’ company rather than feeling that he needs to perform his “class clown” role with them….  The ending is not abrupt, but it is brief, and focuses primarily on the rediscovery and coming resurrection of Tink, almost ignoring the plethora of other troubles with which Hicks has burdened Ellis.

The only reason for me to give The Worm Whisperer less than five stars is my proclivity to save-the-world fantasies over personal dramas.

*****

Hicks, Betty.  The Worm Whisperer.  New York: Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Roaring Brook Press, Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, or Betty Hicks.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.  The review is of an uncorrected proof won through the site, Goodreads.

Book Review: Evelina: The History of a Young Lady’s Reentrance into My Life

Standard

Here is a review of a much older book, a book, in fact, first printed in 1778 (goodness, this book is barely younger than my country!): Evelina by Frances Burney.  This is a book familiar to a number of this blogs’ potential readers as assigned reading from our 17th and 18th Century Literature class, and those same readers will probably know that I enjoyed this book enough the first time through to rescue it from resale on Half.com.  An epistolary novel of letters primarily between the young Evelina Anville and her guardian Rev. Villars, the letters tell of Evelina’s emergence from the country house of her childhood into society, the splash that she makes among the men there, and ends as so many of these novels do, with her marriage to a good man above her station.  The innocence of Evelina’s youth and the delicacy of her upbringing make her an apt lens through which Burney can critique the society—and the gentlemen—of the day.  Full of flowery language, plentiful flattery, and larger-than-life characters, those willing to wade to through the dense 18th century prose, will find a number of amusing though at times grotesque stories to delight as well as love-story worthy of the admiration that Jane Austen’s have received and a tragic family drama.

As enjoyable a second time around as the first, though I have never much been a fan of epistolary writing in general, Burney perhaps succeeds in the medium where more modern writers fail because of the ample letter-writing practice that I’m sure she received.  The letter is a dying art form in the wave of more immediate message-sending methods.  Here, the letters seems less forced than they frequently seem to me to be in other novels, and Burney does not struggle, as some writers seem to do, with how or whether to include details.  I have realized that this is another book like Austen’s where the reader is given very few descriptions of the characters, but the reader hardly notices the absence.  More frequently, Evelina describes in brief the clothes that characters have on (Burney reserves a particular distaste for the fop) than their physical appearance.  I think I would have to read the novel again with the intention of looking to discover whether even anyone’s build is stated.

What Evelina has that many of Austen’s characters do not is a truly horrific back-story upon which to found her entrance into society.  For that, Evelina is perhaps darker than most Austen novels, as Evelina must deal with cruelties that few Austen characters ever know.  It is early in the novel revealed that Evelina is the unacknowledged daughter of Sir John Belmont, who cast-off her mother, unlawfully annuling their marriage, and that she has been unlooked for too by grandmother, Madame Duval.

The first half, filled as it is, with balls and faux pas, I actually, romantic that I am, find less enjoyable than the last book, where both the romance and Evelina’s petitions to her father are more central and more emotional.  My least favorite is volume II, of which the grossness of Captain Mirvan or the Branghtons is a large part.  Though these characters serve as amusement and Burney’s command of dialect is impressive, some of the Captain’s tricks really are terrible.

****

Burney, Frances.  Evelina, or, The history of a young’s lady’s entrance into the world.  Ed. Edward A. Bloom.  New York: Oxford World’s Classics-Oxford UP, 2008.

This review is not endorsed by Frances Burney, those in charge of her estate, Edward A. Bloom, or Oxford University Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.