Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens: My Top 10 Favorite Books from 2011

With apologies once again to Rogers and Hammerstein, here are my top 10 favorite things (book-wise) from 2011.  I have restricted myself to books reviewed here at The Fourth Musketeer.  The books are presented in no particular order.  Please note:  these are not necessarily the books I think are "best" (whatever that means!) but rather books that I found personally compelling for one reason or another.

Young Adult

Jefferson's Sons:  A Founding Father's Secret Children, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial Books for Young Readers).  A fictionalized look at life at Monticello through the eyes of three of his slaves, two of whom were his sons by his slave mistress, Sally Hemings.

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel).  In 1941, 15-year old Lina, her mother, and brother are taken from their Lithuanian home by Soviet guards and sent to Siberia, where her father is sentenced to death in a prison camp while Lina fights to survive.  Based on the author's own family history.

The Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow (Harper Collins).  In 1936 Berlin, 14-year old Karl Stern, considered Jewish by the government despite a non-religious upbringing, learns to box from the legendary Max Schmeling while struggling with the realities of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany.

Tween/Middle Grade

Saving Zasha, by Randi Barrow (Scholastic).  In 1945 Russia, those who own German shepherds are considered traitors, but Mikhail and his family are determined to keep the beautiful dog a dying man brought them, while trying to keep the secret from Mikhail's nosy classmate Katia.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (Harper).  In free verse poems, a young girl chronicles the life-changing year of 1975, when she, her mother, and her brothers leave war-torn Vietnam to resettle in Alabama.  

Picture Books

For the Love of Music:  The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart, by Elizabeth Rusch (Triangle Press).  A lovely picture book biography of the sister of the famous composer.

These Hands, by Margaret H. Mason (Houghton Mifflin).  Combines a little known piece of labor history and the civil rights movement with a tender portrait of a grandfather’s relationship with his grandson.  

Narrative Non-Fiction

Flesh and Blood So Cheap, by Albert Marrin (Knopf Books).  2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire, the worse disaster in American labor history, and Marrin brings the tragic events of that spring afternoon to life, setting the fire in a sweeping historical narrative encompassing not only the events leading up to the fire, but what happened afterwards.

Tom Thumb:  The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature, by George Sullivan (Clarion Books).  The fascinating story of the little person Charles Stratton, “discovered” by P. T. Barnum at the tender age of four; Tom Thumb was one of our nation’s first true celebrities.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Irena's Jars of Secrets, by Marcia Vaughan (Lee & Low Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-Adult.

Irena's Jars of Secrets is the second picture book to come out this year on Polish heroine Irena Sendler, a young social worker who rescued over 2,500 Jewish children from under the noses of the Nazi guards in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II (earlier this year I reviewed Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, by Susan Goldman Rubin).  Both are well-written, worthwhile books, although they cover much of the same territory.

Irena's father, a Polish doctor, taught his daughter that if she ever saw someone drowning, she must jump in, even if she didn't know how to swim.  Irena took his teachings to heart, and when the Polish Jews were forced into the Warsaw ghetto, dying of starvation and disease, she knew she must do something to help.  Dressed as a nurse, she smuggled in food, medicine, and clothes, but that wasn't enough.  Soon she joined the Zegota, a Polish organization established to help the Jews, and started smuggling children out of the ghetto however she could--finding families that would take them in.  She kept careful records of the names of the children and where they went, so that they could be reunited with their parents after the war.  These important notes were hidden in small jars and buried under the apple tree in a friend's garden.

Irena's work was terribly dangerous, and she was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death.  Zegota members managed to rescue her through a bribe, and she continued to work for the resistance until the war ended.  Although Irena was able to retrieve her precious records, very few of the children were able to be reunited with their parents, most of whom had perished in death camps or the ghetto.  Still, relatives were able to be found for some of the children.

Irena's remarkable story was ignored in Poland until very recently, although she was honored in 1965 by Israel's Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among Nations, those Gentiles who helped Jews escape the Nazis.  She passed away in 2008 at the age of 98, but as author Marcia Vaughan concludes in her afterword, "her story of caring and courage lives on."

Ron Mazellan's rich oil painting illustrations capture the somber mood of this time period, with dark colors, broad, energetic, brush strokes, and dramatic lighting.

To learn more about Sendler, you may want to watch a documentary about Sendler's life entitled Irena Sendler:  In the Name of their Mothers, which was broadcast on PBS affiliates in May of 2011.  The documentary features some of Sendler's last interviews.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: Love Twelve Miles Long, by Glenda Armand (Lee & Low Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 6-12.

Based on the childhood of former slave, author and abolitionist  Frederick Douglass, this new picture book by debut author Glenda Armand introduces Douglass as a young boy in Maryland, where his mother visits him one night every week, despite the arduous twelve mile walk from the plantation where she works in the fields.  She explains to him that every mile represents something different, and she makes the journey go by concentrating on these aspects of her life during each mile of the journey.  For example, one mile is for forgetting, another for remembering, another for giving thanks, another for love. Armand is a teacher and school librarian who was inspired to write this story by a comment in Douglass' autobiography in which he remarks that his mother told him he was not “only a child but somebody’s child.”  More than a story about the brutality of slavery, this is instead of a story of a mother's deep love for her child, a universal theme that transcends Frederick Douglass' own story.  In fact, Douglass was separated from his mother as an infant, and she died when he was a small child.

The book is illustrated with beautiful watercolor paintings by Colin Bootman which capture the candlelit slave quarters with glowing light, as well as the quiet peace of the woods through which Douglass' mother walks on her trips.

This is not a picture book biography designed to be suitable for reports, although it could be used in conjunction with other books on Frederick Douglass for classrooms or homeschoolers.  It is also well suited to be read on its own and could spark a child's interest in other aspects of African-American history.  The book includes a brief afterword which gives additional details of Douglass' life after he escaped from slavery and his many accomplishments, including the fact that he gave his mother credit for much of his success.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Saga of the Sioux: An Adaptation from Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dwight Jon Zimmerman (Henry Holt, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Unfortunately I've never read Dee Brown's iconic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the best-selling history of the American West from the point of view of the Native Americans that was first published in 1971.  In this new book written for younger readers, Dwight Jon Zimmerman has adapted Brown's 500+ page book for a younger audience, adroitly simplifying but not "dumbing down" the complex and interwoven stories of the different Indian tribes in the original by concentrating on the Great Sioux Nation.  As Zimmerman explains in his preface, the Sioux's epic fight against the white man represents the struggle of all the Indian nations in many ways, and includes the stories of some of the most famous warrior chiefs in Indian history, among them Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, as well as some of the most famous battles and events.

Zimmerman condenses and abridges Brown's work to concentrate on the Sioux' story, but also adds a first chapter providing background on the Sioux people as well as an epilogue discussing what has happened to the Sioux since the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, and their attempts through the U.S. courts in modern times to get their sacred lands, the Black Hills, returned to them.

I must comment that I found this an incredibly difficult book to read; not because of complicated vocabulary or poorly written narrative, but because of the tragic nature of the material.  In fact, the book made me think about how many narratives of the Holocaust I have read, and yet how this tale of the white man's betrayal again and again of the Native Americans was so hard for me to digest.  That's perhaps a topic for another blog post, but even in stories (whether fiction or non-fiction) of the Holocaust there's a few good people who tried to rescue Jews or otherwise help them, whereas it doesn't seem like any of the white people appreciated the Indians' culture and lifestyle at the end of the 19th century.  Undoubtedly there must have been some more forward looking whites, but where were they?  Putting the Indian children into boarding schools to train them to be "white", it seems.

This narrative starts in the years leading up to the Civil War, in which the Sioux of Minnesota agreed in treaties to surrender nearly all their land, thus having to learn to farm like white men and depending on annuities from the government, and covers the story of the Indian Wars that ensued over the next thirty years.  Over and over again the Sioux were betrayed by the U.S. government, who would appear to negotiate treaties in good faith that they seemed to have no intention of keeping.  The narrative is magnificently illustrated with many full page photographs of various Sioux chiefs as well as American leaders, maps, as well as historic paintings and lithographs.  Zimmerman allows the Sioux leaders to tell their own stories, continuing Dee Brown's practice of including ample primary source materials (primarily oral histories).

Zimmerman concludes his narrative with the incredibly powerful quote that seems to sum up everything that happened to the Native population of this country from the time the white man first landed:

"They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it."  --Red Cloud

This book includes abundant backmatter, including a timeline of Sioux history from 1851 to 1909, a glossary, information on the Sioux calendar, recommended reading, suggested websites, and an index.

I expect this excellent book to be nominated for many non-fiction awards; I would highly recommend it for upper elementary school through middle school, as well as for adults who would like an easy-to-follow overview of this shameful part of our nation's history.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Longing, Belonging, and Speaking out for Justice: Writing from Real Life (Guest post by author Katherine Schlick Noe)

author Katherine Schlick Noe
I am delighted to welcome debut author Katherine Schlick Noe to The Fourth Musketeer.  Katherine has kindly prepared a guest post about her first novel, Something to Hold, reviewed yesterday on this blog.

What was it like living on an Indian reservation?

For as long as I can remember, other non-Indians have asked this question.   It’s always been hard to explain.   Like all of the foundational, complex questions of our lives, there are many answers.   They finally began to solidify when I started to write Something to Hold.

This work of fiction is inspired by my memories of living on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in central Oregon in the 1960’s.  Like Kitty’s dad, mine was a forester with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  He and my mother left Iowa in 1950 to take a job on the Colville Indian Reservation in north-central Washington state.  They didn’t know then that they would spend the rest of their lives working with and living among Indian people.  My brothers and I were born on the Colville Reservation, and we moved every four years, living near Washington, DC and on the Warm Springs and Yakama Reservations.

The years at Warm Springs were pivotal for me, as they are for all children between the ages of seven and eleven.  Something to Hold is grounded in universals.  We all long to find a place to belong, to make friends, to feel connected and rooted.  The book also explores a unique perspective of a non-Indian outsider’s growing awareness of prejudice, including her own.

My writing began with one memory: In the fifth grade at Warm Springs, a classmate I both feared and admired refused to read out loud, and our white teacher took her out into the hall, shook her, and left her there.  Reading out loud, one paragraph at a time, was a normal practice in every school I had attended.  I hated it – so boring to listen to other bored kids read something boring – but I would never have refused.  I couldn’t understand why my classmate would defy this teacher, who allowed no disobedience of any kind, in this way.  That event had a profound impact on me and is one reason that I eventually became a teacher.  No child should be humiliated that way.

That event is also what moved me to write about living at Warm Springs. Having wrestled with the memory for over 30 years, I did what we encourage young writers to do -- started listing all that I could remember about it.  Then I began to tell the story. I was writing in order to make sense for myself, to understand why she would dare to do something I would never have had the nerve to consider. But, of course, I couldn’t remember everything, and that’s when the fiction took over. 

As Something to Hold took shape, I had a chance to meet my classmate again.  Both of us now grown, we visited over our class photo, talking about how life had turned out.  It was clear that hers had been filled with hardship, so different from my own.  When I asked her about the event that had affected me so deeply, she looked me in the eye and said, “It never happened.”  I knew in that moment that this was not my story to tell. So I took that episode apart, changed the details but kept intact the power and fear and strength of will – all of the emotions that were so influential for me -- and gave them to my two antagonists, Raymond and Jewel.  In the chapter “The Capital of Vermont,Raymond and Jewel stand up to their teacher and triumph over humiliation.  And Kitty learns something powerful about speaking out for justice.

Many of the events in Something to Hold are based in truth.  The only way I could begin was to build Kitty’s story around my memories:  a Bible-quoting teacher, the death of a child, a boy who fell through the ceiling of my classroom while working in the school attic, how razor blades horribly derailed an art project.   I created a series of episodes tethered loosely to reality – and then slowly wove in the characters.

This image guided me:  A basket maker begins with a tangle of warps and wefts, a mess of strings held in her hand. Carefully, intentionally, and sometimes magically, she weaves them together into something beautiful, powerful, and enduring – just as a writer weaves with words.   

by Wasco basketmaker Pat Courtney Gold
My goal was to create a tapestry of characters that manage to find their own way and also to help each other live with courage and hope – especially when it’s a struggle to do so.  I hope young readers will identify with Kitty, Raymond, Jewel, and Pinky and the ways in which they reach across a chasm of difference to connect with one another.   I have my classmate to thank for getting me started.

Visit Katherine at her website:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book Review: Something to Hold, by Katherine Schlick Noe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

In this new novel, debut author Katherine Schlick Noe tells a fresh and compelling story, based on her own childhood experiences of growing up on an Indian reservation as one of the only white families in the community.

When our eleven-year old heroine, Kitty, arrives at the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon in 1962, she's used to being the new kid--her dad works for the government as a forest manager and they're always moving around.  But it's hard to fit in at the reservation school where she's one of the only non-Indians.  She doesn't feel comfortable with the white girls dressed in their fancy dresses and stiff petticoats whom she meets at church on Sundays either.  They dismiss all Indians as drunks, and their prejudice bothers Kitty deeply.  Even her teacher tells her that none of the Indian students are going anywhere, and that "they will drag you down if you let them."

The story, narrated by Kitty herself, takes Kitty through her first year living on the reservation, a year of growth and change for this sympathetic character.  As Kitty gets to know her classmates, she begins to appreciate them and their culture, as well as striving to understand the "dark shadows" in their lives, which are so much more complicated than her own happy two-parent family.  She even becomes friends with Jewel, the powerful and angry girl who once intimidated her, and is faced with the difficulties of keeping Jewel's secrets.  Should she speak out to help Jewel and her brother? 

Something to Hold was recognized by Amazon as one of its best books for December for children.  Although the book discusses sensitive subjects, particularly prejudice and an abusive father, these difficult topics are always handled in an age-appropriate way, and in the end the novel is an uplifting coming-of-age story with appealing characters and an unusual setting. 

Tomorrow, I am pleased to feature a guest post from author Katherine Schlick Noe about her new book!

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Book Review: Jeffersons Sons: A Founding Father's Secret Children, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

I've had this book on my radar for a while, and had been waiting patiently for one of my many local libraries to purchase it so I could check it out.  My patience finally ran out, and I decided to buy it myself.  Frankly, this is such an important story that I think it's a must buy for school and public libraries and am disappointed that it seems to have escaped the notice of so many of the public libraries near me.  The book has been getting some Newbery buzz from the blogosphere (which probably doesn't mean much, given recent Newbery history!), but it would also be a great candidate for the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction or the Coretta Scott King Award as well.

I get tired of our founding fathers being treated like saints, particularly in literature for young people--they were far from it, being not only men of flesh and blood but creatures of their time.  In this compelling novel, Bradley tells the story of slave Sally Hemings' children, widely considered to be fathered by Thomas Jefferson (although some controversy persists despite DNA evidence showing that the Hemmings descendants share common traits with Jeffersons' descendants).  The story is told from the point of view of three of Jefferson's slaves--two of whom, Beverly and Madison, were his sons from Sally Hemings, and the third, Peter, the young son of another slave on the plantation who was close to Hemings' children.

Although a slave, Sally Hemings herself was three-quarters white, and a half-sister to Jefferson's wife, Martha (who is already deceased at the time this book takes place).  Her four children who survive infancy--Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston--know who their father is but are forbidden to talk about it.  Their special status means they get special treatment--better clothes, better food, easier work, and even learning to read and write and getting violin lessons, and their mother tells them they'll be freed when they're 21 years old, when they will be able to live as white people.   Although they're 7/8 white, and all but one of them can easily "pass," make no mistake, they are still slaves.  When a captured slave is returned to Monticello and whipped publicly for his crime, Sally and her children are forced to watch along with all the other slaves.

As Jefferson gets older, even those in the slave quarters suspect that his extravagant entertaining at Monticello, his constant building projects, and his love for fine French wines and luxurious goods are leading to greater and greater indebtedness.  What will happen when Master Jefferson dies, and these debts have to be settled?  The precious words of the Declaration of Independence--and its enshrinement of freedom for all--a copy of which is displayed at Monticello, are surely not meant for everyone, when slaves are another form of property and can be sold away at any time.  This story ends with Jefferson's death, and a heart-wrenching slave auction in which families we have come to know in this novel are torn apart.  The novel ends with a four-letter word.  Sold.

An afterword by the author explains what in the book is based on historical fact, and what is made up.  She also explains what is known of Sally Hemings' children.  Her two daughters apparently married white men, never telling about their past, and their families are lost in history.  Madison and Eston Hemings stayed in Virginia until their mother's death, later moving to Ohio and Wisconsin.

While many of the details of Bradley's story are invented, she is careful to make the story historically possible.  She writes in her afterword, "I have done what I can with what we know now.  I've told all the truth I can find; so far as I know, nowhere have I written anything that couldn't be true--that contradicts something we know for sure."  As far as I'm concerned, she's done an outstanding job writing historical fiction populated with real characters, some of whom have left little behind in the historical record.

We owe Bradley our respect for daring to dig behind the "great man" mythology of Jefferson to share with younger readers a broader perspective on not only his life, but how the institution of slavery impacted one of our most important founding fathers and his legacy.

Highly recommended!

Young people who would like to learn more about what happened to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings' offspring might want to read:  Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family, by Shannon Lanier (Random House, 2002), a descendant on the Hemings' side of the family.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: Soldier Bear, by Bib Dumon Tak (Eerdmans Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

In this charming novel for children, Dutch author Bibi Dumon Tak fictionalizes the true story of an orphaned Syrian brown bear cub who's adopted by a group of Polish soldiers during World War II, eventually becoming the unit's beloved mascot.  The mischievous bear cub was named Voytek (smiling warrior) by the soldiers.  As the soldiers journeyed through Iran and Iraq on their way to their assignment in Palestine to join their Brtish allies, even the officers softened at the adorable teddy bear of a cub.  But of course, cute little cubs soon grow big, and Voytek soon is getting into plenty of trouble, especially with the resident monkey, Kaska, who loved to throw stones, sand, or whatever she could find at poor Voytek's head.  But that wasn't the whole menagerie that followed the soldiers around; there was also a dog named Stalin, who Kaska liked to hitch rides on, and a dalmatian who loved to romp around with the bear.

Tak writes about the soldiers and their animal friends with such good humor that I found myself laughing out loud at their antics, especially touching in the middle of a war.  When the soldiers are sent to supply Allied troops in Italy, Voytek takes his place helping to move live artillery shells, when he's not stealing food from the cook or sliding up and down cranes like an acrobat, stopping traffic as soldiers stopped to cheer him on.

While a story of a tamed bear who's goodnaturedly given chocolate, beer, and cigarettes isn't quite "politically correct" for today's American audience, I was charmed by the story of Voytek, his animal friends, and the soldiers who loved them in the middle of wartime.  The book is greatly enriched by the pencil drawings of Dutch illustrator Philip Hopman, which perfectly capture the humor and pathos of the story.  Any animal lover will be delighted by the story of lonely soldiers, little more than boys themselves, cuddling up at night with a furry bear, who liked to suck on their fingers at night as a sort of human pacifier.

The conclusion of the book includes some photographs of Voytek with his soldier buddies, as well as an afterword about Voytek's true story.

For more on Voytek and his soldier friends, see this website set up by the son of one of the soldiers from Voytek's unit.  The website offers plenty of photos of the real bear as well, including this one:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Alicia Alonso Prima Ballerina, by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand (Marshall Cavendish, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.  

Alicia Alonso is one of the most famous ballerinas of the 20th century.   This new picture book biography by award-winning author/poet Carmen T. Bernier-Grand tells the story of her life in free verse, complemented by the graceful tropical colored illustrations by award-winning illustrator Raul Colon.  Gifted as a child, Alicia dances her first solo at age eleven, and even though her feet, legs, and arms hurt, "ballet dancing/tastes better/than chocolate ice cream."  At the tender age of fifteen, she left Cuba with dancer Fernando Alonso to study in New York, where she marries Fernando and has a baby, leaving childhood and Cuba behind.  But when she and her husband get jobs with Ballet Caravan, her daughter can't go with, and is sent to live with her grandparents in Cuba.  Her career is almost finished when her retinas become detached, and she loses her side vision.  Doctors tell her that her dance career is over.  But Alicia is determined to dance again, and soon she is "America's finest Giselle," flying through the air in Colon's exquisite two-page spread.

Returning to Cuba, she forms Ballet Alicia Alonso, soon renamed Ballet de Cuba.  But politics interfere with her plans, and she refuses to dance in Cuba under the Battista regime.  When Fidel Castro leads a successful revolution in Cuba, Alonso returns there, and dances all over the world, but is exiled from the United States.  Despite the controversy, she was finally invited to dance in the U.S. again in 1975.  The story concludes b showing us Alonso still alive at 90, although no longer performing.

The book includes extensive back matter:  the author includes a detailed biography in an afterword, which provides further details about some of the incidents outlined in the free verse of the main part of the book.  She also lists some of the ballets danced by Alonso, some of her awards and recognition, as well as a list of some of the ballets which she has choreographed.  There is also a glossary, a list of sources, websites about Alonso, and notes and references. 
Alicia Alonso in 1955

This book is likely to be of most interest to aspiring ballerinas and other children interested in dance and ballet.  With the material in the back of the book, this 64 page volume provides enough material for a biographical report for school use.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review: The Last Musketeer, by Stuart Gibbs (Harper Collins, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

As a Three Musketeers fan since I was twelve years old, I was of course excited to read this new time travel story, in which a 21st century boy travels back to France of the early 17th century, befriending the future musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  Author Stuart Gibbs' fast paced, action-packed tale may well appeal to today's tweens, but I couldn't help but be disappointed in the way he interprets Dumas' classic story for the 21st century.

The story starts off strong, with a terrific first sentence that will grab any young reader:  "Clinging to the prison wall, Greg Rich realized how much he hated time travel."  On a trip to Paris with his family to sell the family's treasured heirlooms to the Louvre, Greg and his parents are pulled through a time warp, winding up in 1615.  When his parents are falsely imprisoned for trying to kill the young Louis XIII, Greg must rescue them--by meeting up with three teenagers like himself, Aramis, a young cleric, Athos, a soldier from the lower social classes, and Porthos, a foppish rich young nobleman who's the life of the party.  Greg himself becomes known as D'Artagnan (in the original a fish-out-of-water himself, as a bumbling, hot-headed young man from the distant province of Gascony.  Mix in a nefarious brother of Cardinal Richelieu (the Cardinal being a central character in Dumas' novel), and a young Milady de Winter (the original villainess in the Three Musketeers), some tropes of fantasy fiction (a stone that grants eternal life), and voila!  a 21st century musketeer rehash.

Gibbs does a good job with the whole fish-out-of-water time travel tropes, with Greg disgusted by the smells of Paris, the privies, and the fleas, among others.  The book of matches in his pocket make the 17th century characters he meet think he's a magician, as does his ability to swim.  There's plenty of action, as Greg and his new-found friends swashbuckle their way to saving Greg's parents.  At the end, they don't go back to the 21st century, which makes me think that Gibbs has a sequel up his sleeve.

While I can't help but appreciate any author that brings Dumas' characters to the attention of 21st century kids, I couldn't get over several changes to the original story that drove me crazy.  First of all, the author keeps referring to Greg being in medieval Paris.  While the streets of Paris might have been similar to the way they were in the Middle Ages, 1615 is definitely not considered the Middle Ages, and I wonder how such a glaring error could have escaped the Harper editors, not to mention the professor of French history who Gibbs thanks in his acknowledgment for vetting the manuscript.  Second, and what bothered me more as a fan of the original novel, which I couldn't help wondering if Gibbs had actually read, he changed many key elements of the musketeers' personalities.  For example, Athos, or the Conte de la Fere in the original, was a member of the nobility, not a common soldier, as Gibbs makes him out to be.  Appearing as a young girl, the character of Milady de Winter doesn't make sense with that name, since she is supposed to have married an English lord after having been married to Athos as a young girl.  Also, it's not very believable that 14-year old boys would be made guards of the king!  Any young person who reads this and goes on to read the original Dumas is going to discoverer the many inconsistencies, which I just don't think were necessary.   And by turning the somewhat ordinary Greg into D'Artagnan, Gibbs eliminated one of the funniest and most memorable characters in the book, the young Gascon around whom the plot unfolds.

In short, while I enjoyed the concept of this story, I believe the execution could have been much better, simply by keeping more to the original outlines of Dumas' immortal characters.  Unfortunately, I don't think that Gibbs' changes to the basic characters really added to the story, but rather detracted from it.  It will be interesting to see if a sequel is in the making.

Has anyone seen the new 3-d Musketeer movie?  I haven't yet, discouraged by the terrible reviews!  My favorite film version is still the Richard Lester version with Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, and others from 1973. Although this version made changes from the original, it was very much in the sprit of the original novel.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, by Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt, 2011)

Recommended for 14 and up.

In a vague way, most of us have heard of John Brown and his famous raid on Harper's Ferry that preceded the Civil War.  Best-selling nonfiction author Tony Horwitz points out that the event merits a mere six paragraphs in his son's 9th grade history textbook.   In this compelling new work, Horwitz examines not only John Brown's own history and background but the forces in society that led to his carefully plotted conspiracy.

A descendant of the Puritans, Brown was a committed abolitionist who was not afraid to use violence to help overthrow slavery in the United States.  He and his many sons participated in the pre-Civil War fighting between abolitionists and pro-slavery forces in Kansas, before spearheading the formation of a private army.  His ultimate aim--no less than seizing the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, and freeing all the slaves.   How this conspiracy developed and its high profile aftermath is the subject of Horwitz' riveting new work.

Through contemporary eyes, Horwitz notes, we are tempted to see John Brown as an al-Queda type of terrorist, a "long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power."  In this book, Horwitz paints a much more complex picture of a charismatic leader of a large family, a man who mixed with prominent industrialists who supported him financially as well as intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau. He examines John Brown's early life and the events which led to his taking up arms against his own country.

Although the insurrection was quickly put down by future Civil War leader Robert E. Lee, the case mesmerized the nation, polarizing North and South, abolitionists and those who supported slavery.  He became a hero to many in the North and a traitor to those in the South.  Horwitz remarks "Harpers Ferry wasn't simply a prelude to secession and civil war.  In many respects, it was a dress rehearsal. "
John Brown

I have been a fan of Horwitz since reading his earlier book Confederates in the Attic, in which he tries to understand Americans' ongoing obsession with all things Civil War.  Unlike many of his earlier works, which merge personal narrative with historical passages, this book about John Brown is more of a traditional narrative non-fiction history work.  Horwitz' elegant prose reads like a novel, and this book offers an in-depth and fascinating portrait of one of history's pivotal characters, and an important epoch in American history.  While this is an adult title, I would highly recommend it to high school students with a strong interest in history as well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: Caleb's Wars, by David L. Dudley (Clarion Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Caleb's Wars, released last month by Clarion Books, is an intriguing teen historical novel set in the Jim Crow South during World War II.  As the novel begins, two new businesses are opening in 15-year-old Caleb's rural Georgia town:  a new restaurant for whites only, the Dixie Belle, and a POW camp for captured Germans, brought to Georgia to do farm work and replace Americans in the service overseas.  Author David Dudley paints a harsh but undoubtedly true-to-life picture of life for African-Americans at the time.  Caleb has to act carefully around the white people in the town, making sure not to offend anyone or even look a white man directly in the eye.  His family life's no piece of cake either.  His father whips him for disobeying and getting into a fight with some white boys from the town.  "Don't you know by now that white folks'd just as soon kill you as look at you?" he tells Caleb.  His brother's in the military, in the segregated army, and about to be sent overseas, and his mother takes solace in her faith.  Against his father's wishes, Caleb takes a job working at the new whites-only restaurant, where he works washing dishes along with the African-American kitchen workers and a German POW, Andreas, who's been assigned to the restaurant. Caleb can't help but be drawn to the friendly young German, who's supposed to be the enemy.  But when German POW's are allowed to eat at the Dixie Belle, where he and his friends can't be served, it's more than Caleb can take.  How will he come to terms with the many contradictions in his life?  

This novel mixes historical fiction with Christian themes as well, sometimes in a way that seems a bit uneasy.  Toward the beginning of the story, Caleb, largely to please his very religious mother, agrees to be baptized.  During the ceremony, and again after, he hears a voice saying "Behold my servant."  Is it the voice of God?  Caleb is as shocked as anyone, and thinks the whole thing is a practical joke by one of his friends.  But when Caleb is able to mysteriously heal the crippled hands of an elderly man, what exactly does it mean?  Is Caleb now a prophet of sorts?  This religious aspect of the story is never fully developed, and seems to fit awkwardly with the historical fiction themes.

Despite its flaws, I found the book stimulating reading that could provoke interesting discussions for a book group or book talk.   One caveat:  Dudley does not shirk from using the "n" word in his dialogue, which of course was widely used at the time this book is set and is historically appropriate.

Disclosure:  review copy provided by publisher.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: Jingle Bells: How the Holiday Classic Came to Be, by John Harris (Peachtree Publishers, 2011)

Recommended for ages 5-12.

No matter what our religious affiliation, we all know the much-loved holiday song, Jingle Bells, a favorite not only for Christmas albums but also sung at every elementary school sing-along.  But how did this famous song get written?

Author John Harris was inspired by a historic marker he saw on a visit to Savannah, Georgia, to do a little investigating as to the history of the classic tune.  He saw a marker about the history of the song, written by James Pierpont, music director at the Unitarian Church in Savannah in the 1850's.  This story is fictional, but inspired by actual facts.  Harris imagines that Pierpont composed the song in the middle of a Savannah heat wave.  Pierpont, in Harris' story, is an abolitionist, worried about violence surrounding his church because of their anti-slavery policies.  He's homesick, too, for New England, and tries to explain to his young daughter what snow is like, and the sound of sleigh bells.  Suddenly, he's inspired to write a new song for the Thanksgiving day concert at church!

llustrator Adam Gustavson's lively images enhance this charming book, a great read-aloud for the holiday season, especially for elementary school classes learning to sing this classic tune!

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: Vietnam Book One: I Pledge Allegiance, by Chris Lynch (Scholastic, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10 to 14

The first in a new series on the Vietnam War for young readers, I Pledge Allegiance introduces us to four ordinary guys who are best friends:  Rudi, Ivan, Beck, and Morris, our narrator.   Morris is haunted by nightmares about Vietnam, visions of "torn flesh and burned flesh and the end of everything we know, all dying there in the scorching jungle of Vietnam."  The friends have a sacred pledge--if one of them gets drafted, they would all be drafted, even if they weren't serving together.  And when Rudi is drafted, each of them enlists in a different branch of the service.  Morris picks the Navy, where he thinks he can somehow watch over his friends and keep them safe.  But can he stop his nightmares of death and destruction from coming true?

This short, action-packed novel (under 200 pages) is perfect for reluctant readers, even those in high school.  Told in the first person, we can easily identify with Morris and his fears and insecurities.  Lynch does a great job evoking the close bonds between the four friends, as well as the atmosphere of serving on a Navy missile cruiser:  the day to day routines, and the terror of actually seeing action in Vietnam.  Boys will be particularly attracted to this new series.  I was not able to find any information on the rest of the series, but I'm betting that there will be three more volumes, each concentrating on a different one of the four friends, thus profiling a different branch of the service.  This new series is an excellent addition for school or public libraries.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day Guest Post and Giveaway: Author Monika Schroeder: After the War Was Lost

Author Monika Schroeder (and Frank)
Thanks so much to author Monika Schroeder for supplying a thoughtful guest post for Armistice Day, better known in the United States as Veteran's Day.  Monika's new book, My Brother's Shadow, deals with the critical period in German history at the end of World War I.   I am also delighted to be able to offer a giveaway of this new young adult novel.  If you'd like a chance to win, please leave your name and e-mail address in the comments below!

After the War was Lost –

Germany, my home country, has started two World Wars in the last century. Both wars not only brought death and terror to large parts of Europe, but also ended in defeat followed by fundamental changes of the political system. I have tried to imagine how regular people dealt with these changes. I find it fascinating that a German person born at the beginning of the 20th century could have experienced a monarchy, a failed democracy, a fascist dictatorship, 
a socialist totalitarian regime and then again a democracy, just within one life span.

In my first novel, THE DOG IN THE WOOD, I wrote about the end of World War II and how people in a small village in eastern Germany experienced the arrival of the red Army. This story was based on what my father had told me about the end of WWII and how his family was affected by it. My new novel, MY BROTHER’S SHADOW, is set in 1918, another important transition time in German history. I tried to imagine what it might have been like for a young man who had grown up under the Kaiser to see the monarchy disappear and to be confronted with socialist ideas and women’s emancipation.

Nothing is the way it used to be for Moritz, the 16-year old protagonist of MY BROTHER’S SHADOW. His mother and sister attend illegal socialist meetings and talk about how the Kaiser needs to abdicate and the war needs to end. His older brother, Hans, returns from the war, maimed and bitter, blaming Germany’s defeat on Jews and socialists. Then Moritz meets Rebecca, a Jewish girl, who is also a socialist, and he can’t stop thinking about her. When a revolution sweeps away the monarchy he has to make a choice between his dangerously radicalized brother and his love for the women around him who are working to usher in the new democracy.

The stipulations of the Versailles Treaty left Germany humiliated in the eyes of many of the returning veterans. These young soldiers, like Hans in my book, had no work and couldn’t find their place in the new Germany. Looking for scapegoats, they blamed socialists and Jews for Germany’s defeat. Politically the country was divided between the extreme right, represented by militarists who didn’t shy away from violence, and the left. Soon after my novel ends, in 1919, communist politicians Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were assassinated. A civil war ensued and the weak economy helped the rise of the National Socialists who promised a new “strong Germany.” In addition, the structure of the Weimar Parliament gave room for too many small political parties, making it hard to form coalitions and maintain a stable government.

Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, marked the end of a long war and today many countries commemorate the victims of World War I. For Germany it was also the beginning of a new democratic era. But when Friedrich Ebert, the first democratically elected president, signed the peace agreement in February 1919 in Compiegne, France, the seeds for the destruction of the young German democracy had already sprouted.

Don't forget to leave a comment with your e-mail for a chance to win Monika's newest book!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: My Brother's Shadow, by Monika Schroder (Frances Foster Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Set in Berlin in 1918, in the final days of World War I, this new novel tells the story of sixteen-year old Moritz, whose family's existence, like that of everyone else in Germany, has been ravaged by the effects of the seemingly endless war.  His father was killed on the battlefield, his older brother, Hans, is serving in the trenches on the Western front, his little sister has died of illness, and his mother spends all her time either working at an ammunition factory or attending socialist party meetings.  There's little to eat, with food rationed, and everything tasting of turnips, and people butchering horses who fall dead in the streets.  Moritz, who works as an apprentice printer, tries his best to make sense of it all, wondering who is right--his brother, who says it's an honor to serve the Kaiser, or his mother, who bemoans the fact that her husband "died for our foolish Kaiser, who loves his uniforms and his yachts."  Soon Moritz is given a chance to work as a journalist for one of Berlin's daily papers, covering the very socialist rallies where his mother and others are speaking out against the Kaiser and capitalist injustice. 

When Moritz's brother Hans returns from the front with horrible injuries, missing half his arm and blind in one eye, Hans is plagued by nightmares about the war, and sees the Jews as scapegoats for all of Germany's problems.  Morris, on the other hand, is having his first romance--with a Jewish girl.   The book's ominous conclusion foreshadows the increasing persecution of the Jews that will happen in Germany during the 1930's.

Author Monika Schroeder, who grew up in Berlin, provides an author's note discussing how the fall of 1918 was a pivotal time in German history, with the end of the "Great War," the Kaiser's abdication, and the establishment of a democratic government in the beginning of 1919.  With the Germans' humiliating defeat, conservatives and military leaders began blaming the Jews, the socialists, and the communists for all of Germany's woes, laying the groundwork for Hitler's rise to power.

My Brother's Shadow is a very thought-provoking and well-written book about a period ignored in most young adult fiction, which more typically focuses either on World War I or World War II and the few years immediately preceding that conflict.  We can easily identify with Moritz, whose story is told in the first person, and his divided family loyalties.  While the book covers some weighty issues, Moritz is also a typical teenage boy, interested in his first kiss with a girl.  We can sympathize with Moritz's mother as well, a strong character who is very involved in politics, and even his brother Hans, whose bitter experiences and injuries at the front have transformed his personality.  This novel would be a good choice to read along with Russell Freedman's outstanding nonfiction book on World War I published last year, The War to End All Wars:  World War I. 

Below is the book trailer for My Brother's Shadow:

On Friday, November 11, The Fourth Musketeer is pleased to have a guest post from author Monika Schroeder and a special giveaway of this excellent novel (U.S. and Canadian addresses only). Please see Friday's post to enter.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Happy Haulidays Contest from Chronicle Books!

Chronicle Books is hosting its 2nd Annual Happy Haul-idays Giveaway for the blogging community. This year, they're not only giving away up to $500 worth of Chronicle books to one lucky blogger and one commenter on the winning blog post—they're also asking the winning blogger to choose one charity to receive up to $500 of books.  It's so much fun to imagine spending $500 on their terrific titles, stationery, calendars, and other items!

If I were lucky enough to win, my charity of choice would be Reading by 9, a literacy initiative aimed at kids in grades K-3 that is spearheaded by the Los Angeles Times.  

Here's the list of what I would get for myself (an eclectic mix if I do say so!):

The Onion 2012 Daily Calendar                                $12.99


Boo: The Life of the World’s Cutest Dog                    $12.95

City Walks: Los Angeles:  $14.95

Mini Goals Notepad
By Mary Kate McDevi  $9.95

Hope Valley Sticky Notes & To-Do's

By Denyse Schmidt  $12.95

Out of Sight

By Pittau & Gervais  $19.99

Ivy and Bean Boxed Set 2

By Annie Barrows
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall $19.99

The Ivy and Bean Secret Treasure Box

By Annie Barrows
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall $19.99

Alphabeasties and Other Amazing Types

By Sharon Werner
and Sarah Forss  $19.99

I Know a Lot of Things

By Paul and Ann Rand  $16.99


By Taro Miura  $15.95 

Mini Masters Boxed Set
By Julie Merberg
and Suzanne Bober  $19.99

Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then

By Harriet Ziefert
Illustrated by Karla Gudeon  $17.99

Let Freedom Sing

By Vanessa Newton  $16.99

Giant Pop-Out Farm  $10.99

Photobooth Dogs

By Cameron Woo  $14.95

36 1/2 Reasons to Laugh

By Rick Adams $12.95


By Lisa Finander  $16.95

Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey Treats for Kids

By Jill O'Connor
Photographs by Leigh Beisch $19.95

L.A. Bizarro

By Anthony Lovett
and Matt Maranian  $19.95

Hooked on Hiking: Southern California

By Ann Marie Brown


Moleskine 2012 18 month weekly planner pocket black soft cover $14.95

Typewriter Ecojournal:  $10.95

Total:  $498.99

Leave a comment below for your own chance to win if I'm the lucky blogger winner!