Let Your Spirits Soar: A Review of Catherine, Called Birdy


When someone says “Middle Ages,” what do you think of? Dashing princes on white stallions and blonde princesses in long blue gowns? Or maybe peasants that cheer as their lady and lord ride through the streets? In any case, most people aren’t likely to think of a freezing stone mansion, a young troublemaking lady, and fat, old suitors. But believe it or not, those were the Middle Ages!

Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, tells the story of a curious, high-strung 14-year-old lady. Catherine hopes to be a crusader, a monk, a peddler, a songwriter . . . anything but an unwillfully wedded wife. Realistic yet full of feisty humor, Catherine, Called Birdy will definitely improve your mood.

Catherine is forever playing pranks, which gave this book much of its humor. Catherine always describes her shenanigans as worth the “crack,” or spank, administered afterwards. One especially memorable joke is when she snips up lute strings and sprinkles them on a hot plate of meat. The heat makes the strings wiggle, making them look like maggots, transforming a potentially peaceful (and boring) dinner into an exciting one. But Catherine’s actions are not the only reason the book is funny. With her frank wording, it is virtually impossible not to laugh (or at least snigger).  In fact, by the time I had read two pages, I was already giggling!

Catherine, Called Birdy represented the time period well. Some characters were extremely superstitious, such as Morwenna, Catherine’s nurse. Morwenna informs Catherine about an enchantment to separate lovers and performs a spell to rid one of Catherine’s dogs of a devil (which turned out to be a candied fig). The characters weren’t beauties, either! Catherine was gray-eyed and brown-haired; her father was fat, had bad breath, and shouted his way through life. The settings were accurate as well: the castle was freezing, everything was infested with fleas, and the great hall’s floor was very dirty. I think I actually would have been repelled by this book had it not been so accurate!

Catherine, Called Birdy was blithe and true to life. Comparing this book to other medieval tales about dragon-slaying kings marrying shallow-minded princesses is like comparing a sparrow to a flea. So lift the cover and be prepared to let your spirits soar!

Ages: 11+

You can buy this book here.


Magnum Opus: A Review of The Mysterious Benedict Society Trilogy


Many people, if not all, know the saying “Never judge a book by its cover.” A couple years ago, I had resolved never to judge a book by its cover. I was pretty sure that I had followed that rule—until now. You see, a few years ago a friend gave us a book. Unfortunately, the cover illustration didn’t appeal to me (I recall that I thought that the people didn’t look realistic enough), and I didn’t read it. But here I am, or here this review is, to tell you about that poor, ignored book: The Mysterious Benedict Society Trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart!

The Mysterious Benedict Society Trilogy is about a group of four children—Kate, Reynie, Sticky, and Constance (aka The Mysterious Benedict Society)—who are chosen to solve a problem. Led by Mr. Benedict, they get electrified, handcuffed, and chased during their struggles to defeat Ledroptha Curtain (Mr. Benedict’s evil twin) and his wicked machine, the Whisperer. But Mr. Curtain is also dangerous. Will the Mysterious Benedict Society survive?

The Mysterious Benedict Society (book no. 1) was extremely adventurous. In this book, the Society goes to the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, Mr. Curtain’s school. Every day the Executives (Mr. Curtain’s helpers) gather in the gym. Reynie has the feeling that they were up to something, so he climbs up on Kate’s shoulders to peek. That’s not merely risky—that’s adventurous!

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (the second book) was exceedingly mysterious. In this book, Mr. Benedict is kidnapped by Mr. Curtain. However, Mr. Benedict leaves behind clues wherever he is taken. But some of them don’t make sense at all. What is the “twin moon?” Who is the “close” person Mr. Benedict talked about? You could say that the book smells of mystery.

The third book, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, was full of suspense. Although I did get a little confused when the Ten Men launched their assault on the Society, one question thundered through my head as I read it: “Is this the end of The Mysterious Benedict Society?” I flipped the pages faster and faster, just to find that the Society was completely . . . actually, I don’t think I’ll tell you.

This trilogy was a magnum opus. If you like action and mystery, you’ll love it. Remember, never judge a book by its cover. Especially not this one!

Age: 10+

You can buy the books here.


A Wonderful Surprise: A Review of The Bronze Bow


Strangely, when I picked up The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, I was as skeptical as when I picked up The Witch of Blackbird Pond, also by Speare—but both books wonderfully surprised me! Always trust Speare’s books to have unassuming covers and astounding contents.

 The Bronze Bow is a story about a young man who lived during the time of Jesus. Daniel bar Jamin is eighteen and lives with the bandits (that’s what the townsfolk call them) or the future liberators of Israel (that’s what the bandits call themselves!). One day, Daniel meets Joel bar Hezron, a boy from his old school. Soon Daniel heads for Ketzah, where he lived until five years before the story begins. In Ketzah, Daniel meets Jesus. When Daniel hears about the kingdom Jesus preaches about, hope surges through him. Will Jesus fight against the Romans? It takes a long time for Daniel to discover what Jesus was really saying.

In this story, Jesus was a mystifying character. He would appear in white clothes, his bearded face smiling with a radiant glow that seemed to be made of pure peace. Jesus taught people to love and forgive instead of seek revenge and hate. When I read this, I felt like trying to love and forgive was all I wanted to do. The Jesus whom Speare describes is the Jesus I picture: pure, true, and understanding.

Speare did a fabulous job handling the character’s emotions because the characters often had mixed feelings. Daniel often felt two emotions at once instead of only one emotion, so he was not a simple and undeveloped character. There were so many feelings mixed together to form different states of being that I had no problem accepting that Daniel could have easily been a real person. Daniel is torn between two things: his vow to defeat the Romans and following Jesus. Isn’t that so human? Often, we seem to want two things even if we know we can’t have both of them. Because Speare includes these two very important human characteristics, we can safely say that she is excellent with her character’s emotions.

Speare completely surprised me with this book and its deep characters. I  love surprises! And with magical characters complete with complex emotions, The Bronze Bow is the one of the best surprises I’ve ever experienced!

Ages: 10+

You can buy this book here.


From Simple to Sinister: A Review of And Then There Were None

I used to think that nursery rhymes were silly, simple, and annoying. They rang in my head, over and over: Little Jack Horner and Little Miss Muffet and Humpty Dumpty and Little Bo Beep. Why would I “waste my time” reading nursery rhymes? But after reading And Then There Were None, my perspective changed. I never knew that something so simple could become so sinister.

Continue reading “From Simple to Sinister: A Review of And Then There Were None

Beautiful Simplicity: A Review of The Good Master 


When I visited Budapest last year, we took a ferryboat to see the Danube River. I loved looking down at the Danube from the boat. Its waters were fresh, dark and magical. When I looked up from the river, I saw Budapest’s Statue of Liberty on a hill: a young girl standing against the wind, with a large feather held over her head. I was stricken with the simple beauty of the statue, just like I was stricken with the simple beauty of this book.

The Good Master, by Kate Seredy, tells of a young Hungarian boy called Jancsi and his family. Jancsi is extremely excited: his cousin Kate, from Budapest, is coming to stay on his father’s ranch! But Kate is not what Jancsi expected: she is vivacious, troublesome, and wild. At the end of the summer, however, Kate is still vivacious and a troublemaker, but she is tamer. Everybody is dismayed when she has to go back home, until one evening. . .

I could picture the people in this book clearly. In fact, it was so clear that I felt I was watching the scenes from a hidden corner! I could see Mother’s big, wide, colorful Easter skirt, and Jancsi’s embroidered shirt and pants. Sometimes, I would stroke my reading couch and almost feel the shepherd’s bunda, a coat that is leather on the outside and wool on the inside. When I finished the book, I was dismayed to find that no, it wasn’t actually snowing, that was only the story! This vividness made the book feel true, simple, and warm.

Every few chapters, a different character in The Good Master started telling a story. These stories were heartfelt and had strong morals, yet they never got preachy. I especially liked the story “The Land Where People Never Die,” which said that if you worked hard and were kind, your memory would never die and thus you would “live” forever. When the main character of this tale discovers this, he decides to stop being a mean and lazy slob and instead be kind and hardworking. So although the tales were simple, they had deep and true morals.

The Good Master was beautiful. It told of simple things, simple people, and simple tales. Although the word “simple” can be understood as “stupid” and “superficial,” the kind of simplicity in this book was beautiful.

Ages: 9+

You can buy this book here.


The New Symbol of Friendship: A Review of Holes


When I bit into a raw onion, my taste buds were met by an explosion of different flavors. At first, the onion was sweet. All of a sudden an outburst of bitterness attacked my mouth. The back of my throat felt like a porcupine was ramming it. I coughed and spluttered, and my sister shot a couple photos. Even though she begged me to eat the whole onion, I refused.

You might be wondering why I did something that crazy. The truth is that a boy in the book I just read ate an onion too, and I wanted to know how it felt. And then my family dared me to do it, and we are a family of daredevils.

 Holes, by Louis Sachar, is the story of a boy named Stanley Yelnats. He is unjustly accused of stealing and is sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile delinquent detention camp. Every day the boys at Camp Green Lake dig holes in an old lakebed. Stanley knows that the Warden, the manager of the camp, is looking for something in the lakebed. But what could be hidden in the dry ground?

I shuddered as I read about the harsh conditions that Stanley faced. At Camp Green Lake, water was scarce and food wasn’t tasty. I could picture Stanley sweating in the blistering hot sun, almost feel his parched throat and hear his growling stomach. And people were not any less harsh: the Warden was dangerous and greedy and the boys at camp called each other strange names. Yes, Holes was as dramatic as biting into a raw onion.

There are many symbols of friendship: hearts, yellow roses, bracelets, and more. But if you were to read Holes, you would undoubtedly agree with me that the onion should be the new sign of friendship.

Ages: 8+

You can buy the book here.


A Fight to Put It Down: A Review of The Alliance

the alliance

Is it possible to have paradise on Earth, a place where there is no anger, war, or pain? Your immediate reply will probably be “no,” and I’m pretty sure you’re right. However, if you were a citizen of Shalev, you might think otherwise. What is Shalev? Only a fictional city, built after a world that was almost completely destroyed in a nuclear war, a city thought to be a paradise by its citizens. But is that really what it is?

In The Alliance by Gerald N. Lund, a young man named Eric Lloyd is transported against his will to the city of Shalev, one of four cities of the Alliance that is ruled by the Major. At first Shalev seems wonderful, but soon Eric discovers the real purpose for the irremovable watches fixed on everyone’s wrists and the silicon chips that the Major implanted in everyone’s brains. Eric and a group of rebels must fight for their freedom, but the Alliance is powerful. How will Eric succeed?

This book was gripping. I stayed up until eleven p.m. reading it! Gerald N. Lund measured out the right amounts of adventure and tension, making an irresistible mix that kept you turning the pages steadily. I can just picture him saying, “Hmm, let’s add a tablespoon of action there (a bear fight) . . . that chapter needs a half teaspoon of tension . . . let’s make the Major turn off the sirens . . . there . . .” The ideal concoction for a gripping book!

The characters in The Alliance had a certain depth to them. They experienced fear, doubt, joy, and many other emotions with an astonishing vividness, such as when Eric’s mother watched while her daughter was implanted. The characters had a certain humanness to them. Eric wasn’t a superhero, gentle with anyone who wasn’t “the bad guy.” Nicole, a Guardian in the Alliance, wasn’t totally sure that the Alliance was perfect. If Eric were a superhero, and Nicole were totally sure that the Alliance was perfect in every way, they would have seemed fake, and the story would have lost much of its meaning.

The Alliance is an absolute must-read. It is a remarkable story with a remarkable message: people must choose to be good. They cannot be forced to behave. But beware! It can be a real fight (almost as bad as Eric’s fight with a bear!) to put this book down.

Age: 12+

You can buy the book here.


A Realization: A Review of The Book Thief

the book thief

A few days ago I was pacing in front of our friend’s two bookshelves and wondering which book to read (don’t worry, our friends had granted me permission to read their books) when a familiar book caught my eye. I took the book from the shelf and glanced through it. I approved it, my mother approved it, and I brought it home. The next day, I set it on the floor and I read it. It was so perpetually captivating that I didn’t notice that I was in an extremely uncomfortable crouching position. When I finished it, I had a huge lump in my throat, and more importantly, a very sore back.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a story about a young girl, Liesel Meminger, who is taken in by foster parents at the beginning of World War II. On the way to her new home in Molching, Germany, her brother dies. At his funeral, she finds a book in the snow and slips it into her coat. Thus begins the first book theft of many.

This novel was bittersweet. Somehow, it coated dark things with a sort of grim humor. Often I found myself trying to laugh and cry at the same time. I wish Mr. Zusak would show me how to create that sense of humor. It is definitely something I admire in authors, as it keeps the book from being monotonous and depressing, two things I think everybody dislikes in books.

This story was also gripping, as I demonstrated with my little crouching episode. Along with the marvelous humor, a little tension was all Mr. Zusak really needed. And he added it in all the right places—a book theft witness, a Nazi party searching the house, the illness of a Jew hiding in Liesel’s house, and many other problems that heightened the tension of the story. Mr. Zusak didn’t keep me turning the pages steadily—he had me turning them faster and faster. Bravo, Mr. Zusak!

The Book Thief was beautiful, witty, tragic, and grim. It was especially interesting because it was told through Death’s perspective. Death was constantly making announcements, and I’d like to copy him (or her, we don’t really know) in saying:


You should really read The Book Thief.

Ages: 12+

You can buy the book here.


The Six Robinson Crusoes: A Review of Swallows and Amazons

swallows and amazons

My “Aunt” Rhiannon (she’s not really my aunt, but she is so nice that I consider her one) has always told me to read this book. I finally acquired it, and have decided that “Aunt” Rhiannon made no mistake in recommending it to me. Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome, is a story about four children (the Swallows) who camp on an island. There they find themselves being attacked by Nancy and Peggy (the Amazons), two fierce pirates. Together the Swallows and the Amazons have an adventure-filled stay on the island. I loved this book mostly because it was exciting and slightly funny. Are you ready? Let’s go find out why!

Maybe this book sounds a little boring. Trust me, it isn’t. There was a lot of excitement typed on the pages of Swallows and Amazons, such as a “war” out on the lake surrounding the island and a pirate in a house-boat. Also, imagine reading about a boat, barely visible, rowing silently across seemingly deserted waters. The three inmates of the boat talk in whispers. It is midnight. They are on a daring expedition . . . doesn’t that fill you with a nervous, jumpy feeling? That is what it did to me, and I loved it.

This book was funny. I don’t mean the “OOH! Ha ha, you gotta read this!” kind of funny, but the kind that makes you laugh to yourself and say, “Oh wow, that is great.” I suppose the fact that made it so comical was that the characters pretended a lot, but they were dead serious. For example, anyone who didn’t live on the island was called a “native”, even if it was their mother. They, of course, couldn’t tell everything to the natives because who knew if they were trustworthy? That seemed a little absurd to me so I always ended up laughing a little, even if I was in a bad mood.

This story delighted me. It is fairly easy to read. The books’ characters were very much influenced by the book Robinson Crusoe. Don’t hesitate to read this book! It could be called “The Six Robinson Crusoes.”

Ages: 10+

You can buy the book here.

swallows and amazons2