Second book review for today: My Mother’s Secret by J.L Witterick

By Ekta R. Garg

October 15, 2014

Rated: Bookmark it!

In the midst of a war a woman risks her own life and her daughter’s life to help others. She hides people when they seek sanctuary, and she doesn’t turn anyone away—teaching her daughter some of life’s most important lessons in the process. J.L. Witterick takes a real story of the Holocaust and uses it as the basis for her sparse but powerful novel My Mother’s Secret.

Born to a Ukrainian father and Polish mother, Helena grows up in Germany with her brother, Damian. Although their father often exerts his strong will over their mother, Franciszka, Helena and Damian learn to share the good things in life with each other and their parents. When their father expresses pro-Nazi views at the beginning of World War II, however, Franciszka knows she can’t stay with him anymore. She doesn’t agree with the Nazis, and she doesn’t want her children growing up with that ideology. Her husband makes it clear that if she leaves she shouldn’t come back.

They move to Poland to the small town of Sokal, and for a time Helena feels safe. She gets a job and meets a man who catches her interest, and he begins to reciprocate. Helena begins to believe that life will get better, that moving to Sokal will mean better things for all of them.

When tragedy takes Damian away from them, Franciszka and Helena almost buckle under their grief. But even the grief of losing a son doesn’t diminish Franciszka’s compassion for others. Despite the fact that Sokal is a small dot on the map of Poland, the town isn’t immune to German invasion. Soldiers arrive, and the local Jewish population feels threatened. Some of the Jewish residents come to Franciszka for help, and Helena watches as her mother does what she can to help those persecuted for their cultural heritage.

Franciszka and Helena hide two families and a single solider, but none of the refugees know about the others. Better to keep them safe by keeping them ignorant, Franciszka says, and Helena sees the truth of this. She lives with a constant fear of getting caught, but she understands that her mother made the right choice by saying “yes” every time someone knocked on their door in the middle of the night.

Using viewpoints that toggle between Helena and the people she and her mother help, author J.L. Witterick tells the story in My Mother’s Secret with short chapters that almost read like diary entries. Witterick avoids detailed descriptions, which lend the novel a sparse feel in its opening chapters.

Readers might need several pages to get into the novel’s pace, but the sparseness lends to the book’s dramatic impact. At the end the story will leave a strong impression as only stories about the Holocaust can. Only 60 of Sokal’s 6000 Jews survived the war. The real Franciszka and her daughter saved 30 of them.

Knowing that, I highly recommend My Mother’s Secret.

Brand new review: Mix It Up! by Herve Tullet

By Ekta R. Garg

October 15, 2014

Rated: Borrow it

The author of the popular children’s book Press Here has given children another reason to interact with books. Following a familiar layout, Mix It Up! introduces the idea of mixing colors and watching what happens when those colors get smeared, squished, and (what else?) pressed into one another. The result is a book that lives up to its predecessor with a minor hesitation.

For those unfamiliar with the first book, Press Here asks its readers to watch what happens through the pages when they touch fingers to various drops of color. Dots of paint multiply and divide, slide from one side of the page to another, and even grow, and all of these things happen only when the reader follows the book’s commands. Hailed by many media outlets as a book that would give the iPad a run for its money, author Herve Tullet encourages children to relate to Press Here in a way that delights and surprises its target audience.

Mix It Up! follows a similar format but with more intention. Kids will start the book with an invitation that says, “It’s that time again,” sure to induce grins. This time, however, the book starts with a gray dot and uses the dot as a call to action to invite other colors to join it on the page. Soon enough large primary color blots dominate the spread, but this time the blots really do look like paint blots. Tullet invites kids to rub one color onto the next, introducing and reinforcing the concepts of mixing primary colors to create secondary ones.

Tullet instructs readers to start by dabbing one color onto the next, but within several pages he encourages kids to smear the colors into one another. The result brings spreads similar to what children might create in introductory art classes as they explore paint for the first time. Like Press Here, Mix It Up! revels with minimal text in what the reader can bring to a book that always encourages imagination and whimsy like only the best teachers can.

The one minor hiccup comes when Tullet tells kids to close the book in an effort to “smoosh” colors together. Younger readers might fumble for a minute or two to find their page again when they’re done “smooshing,” causing a small interruption in the reading process. Because this isn’t a board book, it makes more sense from a tactile standpoint for readers to close the book. Pressing two pages together could possibly cause the pages to come out of the spine after repeated readings. But some readers will most certainly need an adult close to help them find the pages they’d just pressed to continue with the fun.

Despite the small logistical challenge, Mix It Up! will certainly encourage readers to come to books with an active mindset. Subtle reminders, like fingerprints and paint smudges at the edges of the pages reinforce that mindset. The book does what the best books always do: it offers readers a chance to participate in the discovery process of a good story.

I recommend Mix It Up! for all children who enjoy reading and who expect their books to delight and amaze them.

New book review: The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill

By Ekta R. Garg

October 1, 2014

Rated: Bookmark it!

A boy survives a tragedy in which his twin brother dies; a young girl follows her father to a hideaway in the woods in the hopes that it will give them a new start in life. A king, egged on by greedy men, embarks on a quest to reclaim a portion of his kingdom. And magic beings wait in a forest for the time and the person who can come to free them from an enchantment of their own making. Author Kelly Barnhill offers middle grade readers a modern-day fairy tale in The Witch’s Boy, a novel that offers charm and depth in equal measure.

When twins and best friends Ned and Tam build a raft, they have one goal: to reach the sea. Their trip goes horribly wrong; only Ned comes home and that too after his father rescues him. Ned’s mother, Sister Witch, summons all of her knowledge about magic to save him. She does it with hesitation; she has only used the magic for the benefit of others, and she doesn’t know what consequences it will have in using it for personal gain.

The magic does save Ned’s life; it also has consequences. His smooth speech turns into a debilitating stammer. Every attempt to read turns into a dead end. Ned withdraws from the company of the villagers who call him “idiot.” More than anything he carries the reputation of “the wrong boy” who was rescued.

Meanwhile, Aine allows her practicality to rule her life. Despite her mother’s death, Aine does what she can to take care of her father. He in turn loves her, but more and more Aine notices that his behavior has begun changing. One day he comes home and tells Aine they will move out of their home by the sea and into a cottage in the woods. There, he believes, they will find refuge from the temptations that entice him.

Aine and her father move, but the new location only contributes to his straying from home. Little by little Aine figures out the truth: her father is a bandit. More than that, the other bandits look to him as the Bandit King. Aine does her best to adjust to her new life and to accommodate her father’s trips away from home that become more frequent. Soon, however, events force Aine to realize that her life will never return to normal.

In the midst of all of this, the Stones in the woods wait. Long ago they let loose their magic in the world. Now they see how complicated matters have become as a result of the magic roaming the land. They know someone must set them free in order to make everything right again.

Author Kelly Barnhill gives middle grade readers a wonderful story. She doesn’t shy away from building depth into her story, giving her main characters flaws that make them more endearing and their challenges that much harder all at the same time. As a result readers will find themselves entrenched in the world of Ned and Aine. The book’s length might make some parents wonder whether their middle graders can handle it, but parents can rest assured. Every page and chapter make the journey well worth it.

I highly recommend The Witch’s Boy for those readers who enjoy a modern twist on a fairy-tale world.

New review: The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien

By Ekta R. Garg

September 17, 2014

Rated: Borrow it

A young woman attending an elite boarding school for the arts discovers a dark secret about the institution. When she begins searching for details, she realizes that the secret encompasses more than she or her friends could ever imagine. Young adult author Caragh M. O’Brien brings readers this concept in her brand new novel The Vault of Dreamers that alternates between fascinating and puzzling.

Rosie Sinclair has received the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to study at The Forge School, the most prominent arts academy in the country. Teens come to Forge from everywhere to receive instruction and to grow in their chosen arts, and fierce competition to enroll and stay at Forge pervades the first-year students. The competition gets fueled by the fact that the school also comprises a popular reality show, and the votes of the viewing public decide who stays and who goes.

For Rosie staying on the show means the chance at a better life. The Forge School feels light years away from the boxcar in Arizona that constitutes the home where she and her family live. Her stepfather doesn’t have a job, and her mother works hard to support the family. Her half-sister, Dubbs, provides Rosie with motivation and a bright spot in an otherwise dismal life. When Rosie feels discouragement about her public rank, she thinks about Dubbs.

Rosie barely makes it past the big cut, and then she notices strange occurrences around the school. They bother her enough that she begins to investigate, despite breaking school rules to do so. What she finds out shocks her: the school administrators use the students in some type of experiment. Rosie knows the experiments run contrary to the image the administration wants to portray, and she also wants to stop them. She’ll just need to find a way to do it without losing her own self in the process.

Author Caragh M. O’Brien provides readers with a fascinating concept. She examines the idea of dreams and how scientists use those dreams. The result gives the book’s intended audience some interesting fodder for thought.

Unfortunately O’Brien’s narration leaves several gaps in the story. Rosie manages to get out at all odd hours to spy on people in her quest to find out what is going on. She receives the occasional reprimand about sneaking out but doesn’t really have to endure serious consequences. When administrators give her an ultimatum it feels forced, as if the plot required a point of tension and every other option had already been exhausted.

Also, the characters talk often about the reality show aspect of the academy, but the reality show doesn’t feel real. Rosie narrates the story in first person, which limits how much information readers can get, and because she devotes so much time to her experiences and her investigation the reality show gets pushed to the background. As a result readers get told several times about the importance of the show but don’t feel the impact of that importance.

Nevertheless, O’Brien gives her readers a story that might be difficult to believe in parts but is impossible to ignore in others. For those who persevere and gloss over the book’s flaws, they will reach an end that will captivate them. O’Brien doesn’t bow to social convention, and she refuses to employ closure for closure’s sake. For that The Vault of Dreamers deserves to be read.

I recommend this book for those who enjoy young adult dystopian novels and also those who like books that present interesting scientific concepts present as possibility.