The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

blue book cover with eyes

BIBLIO: Ages 2004 (reprint), Scribner. 13 and up.
REVIEWER: Gwen Harter.
FORMAT: Young Adult book
ISBN: 978-0743273565

This time old classic is revered by readers of all ages. The complicated plot revolves around wealth, love, and secrets. The narrator is Nick Carraway, a young and hopeful man that works in the business world but would rather be a writer. He moves into a small home in West Egg, the up and coming societal housing of Long Island. His neighbor is the mysterious, eccentric, and fabulously connected Jay Gatsby. Nick’s cousin Daisy marries a college sweetheart, Tom Buchanan, loaded with old money and a great reputation as an ex-polo player, and lives just across the river in East Egg. The story spins out of control as the three main characters interact. Nick’s admiration and pity for Jay, Jay’s loneliness and obsession for Daisy, his old flame, and Daisy’s need for security and desperation in looking for an escape, all play into the human condition and draws the reader in.

This novel is set in the roaring 1920’s and while fictional reflects plenty about the slang, the fashions, the corrupt underworld, and the rich culture. Nick describes his encounters at Jay’s summer night extravaganzas, Tom’s second life of flirtations, with his mistress Myrtle, and booze in the city, and his own simple life getting twisted into this lush lifestyle. With plenty of tragic turns and enthralling confrontations this book is a must read.

I would recommend this book to 8th grade and up for boys and girls. This novel is a great introduction into the literature of the time and a peek into the American canon. I would recommend this book as a classroom read, as many students have already experienced. It looks into strong themes like fidelity, wealth, desire, facades, and dreams.

Z for Zachariah

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

scared girl book cover

BIBLIO: 1975,New York: Atheneum,Ages 13 to 16.
REVIEWER: Gwen Harter.
FORMAT: Young Adult book
ISBN: 978-1416939214

In a post-apocalyptic world sixteen year old Anne Burden lives by herself in a secluded valley minimally affected by the nuclear fallout, tending her family farm and occupying her time with her journal (the novel itself). Having spent a whole year in isolation she is surprised when a strange man, Mr. Loomis, arrives in the valley with a [hazmat] suit and Geiger counter, cautious she avoids him at first but when he falls ill she returns to aid him to health. In his feverish outbursts she finds out his troubled past with Edward to the point of murder. When he regains his health Anne becomes wary and runs away when he tries to take advantage of her, avoiding him but hoping to coexist in the valley though that plan gets cut short when he tries to track her with the dog and maim her to prevent her escape. In a resolute action Anne flees the valley with Mr. Loomis’s stolen supplies looking for another valley hoping to find a future as a schoolteacher. The book was written and presumably set in a Cold War time period. It appears that this simple book, at one point, would have been relevant and entertaining to teenage girls and some boys but not to the 21st century reader. Some of the details seem outdated and in some ways too convenient, not to mention the characters seem logical but act inconsistently. I would not actively recommend this title, instead I would offer Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, which is a similarly apocalyptic series set realistically in the modern day.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home
for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs

 girl portrait black and white book cover

BIBLIO: 2011, Quirk Books, Ages 14 to 18.
REVIEWER: Gwen Harter.
FORMAT: Young Adult book
ISBN: 978-1594746031

This exceptional fantasy story starts in Florida. Typical sixteen year old Jacob works at his family business, Smart Aid, killing his time and trying to get fired. In general an antisocial person Jacob is closest with his Grandpa Abe Portman. In his childhood Grandpa would tell him stories about peculiar children with unique talents that lived in an idyllic home overseen by the Bird. He would show pictures to Jacob and also describe these terrible monsters that were dangerous and sought out himself and the peculiar children. Jacob eager to believe in childhood dismissed all of this as fairytales in adolescence and the monsters as symbolic of his grandfather’s troubled past, being of Jewish heritage during WWII. His world is turned upside down when his grandfather calls frantically at his work, leaving to check up on him Jacob is startled to find the elderly man in the wood all sliced up and the disgusting creatures from his childhood only a few feet away. His grandfather’s last words continue to haunt Jacob and all of his family thought he is insane. Seeing many doctors without much use Jacob discovers a clue in a book that his aunt found at Grandpa’s house. Embarking on a journey to Cairnholm with his father Jacob begins to quickly discover his secretive grandfather’s past. Everything he was told is true! After searching the abandoned house he finds a trail of clues that lead him to a portal to an alternate universe. This universe is a time loop and contains the home his grandfather told about with many of the exact same children. Immediately they take a liking to each other. Not long after though they are all in terrible danger from the monsters. Together they battle them off and save the home and their headmistress.
This book is highly recommended for girls from grades 9-12. It is a little slow to start but the witty wording makes it bearable. There are stunning, old fashioned photographs to accompany the story making it easy to picture the characters and adds another level of intrigue. All of the recommendations I had received before reading this book were proven to be accurate, this book is entertaining and sure to remain popular in the fantasy genre for many more years.

More titles in the Series:
Girl with hole book cover Boy with wings book cover

Zel

Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

girl with leaves book cover

BIBLIO: 1996 Dutton Children’s Books/ Penguin Books , ages 12 to 15, $15.99.
REVIEWER: Gwen Harter.
​FORMAT: Middle Reader.
ISBN: 0-525-45612-0

This is a retelling of the classic fairytale Rapunzel. The narrative switches between the three main characters Zel (Rapunzel), Konrad, and Mother (the witch). The plot starts a few day prior to Zel’s thirteenth birthday when she and Mother go to the marketplace. There Zel meets Konrad at the smithy’s when she is admiring and comforting his horse Meta. Konrad gives Zel the gift of a goose egg and they become smitten with each other. Mother, sensing that there is this new part of Zel’s life is threatened and whisks the young girl off to a hidden tower. Konrad searches for the next two years for the girl he fell in love with at first sight and Zel longs for the boy she found so charming. The plot reaches a turning point approximately fifty pages from the end of the novel as the end of the two years approaches. Konrad has finally found his mystery girl, mentally disturbed after months and months of isolation. They spend the night together and Konrad promises to return and free Rapunzel. Mother comes for her daily visit and Rapunzel reveals that she loves a young man and stands up to her mother. Mother uses her witch’s power over the plants to banish Rapunzel to a beachy region far away from their home in the Alps. Konrad comes back to find the witch and jumps and lands on thorns becoming blind. For the next three years the lovers are still separated, Rapunzel gives birth to twin girls and Konrad resumes his search while still blind. He eventually is able to travel to Rapunzel’s new home and they reunite and Rapunzel cries into his eyes, healing them.
This novel closely follows the classic, gruesome version of Rapunzel. The narrative is split into three parts, Zel’s, Konrad’s, and Mother’s. There are eight parts, four of which focus on each character and their interpretation of rejection, loneliness, obsession, and love. Napoli works very hard to create layers of reality and is skillfully subtle in some of her ideas such as puberty and physical maturity, religion, abuse, and morality. She is able to draw out some of these themes because the tale of Rapunzel is quite familiar and reinterpreting it can mean changing such details. This book would be a good suggestion for reluctant readers because of the basic plot. It is also a fair book to read individually.

Ruby Holler

Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech

cabin in the woods book cover

BIBLIO: 2002 Joanna Cotler Books/ HarperCollins Publishers, ages 9 through 12, $16.89.
REVIEWER: Gwen Harter.
​FORMAT: Chapter Book
ISBN: 0-06-027733-5


This book is about twin orphan Dallas and Florida. They are thirteen years old have been in the foster system since infancy. Bouncing into families’ homes and right back to the Boxton Creek children’s home is the only cycle the twins have ever known. They reveal some of the terrible realities they experienced regarding bad foster parents and the home they always return to.
Before long, Tiller and Sairy, an older couple bring them back to their home in Ruby Holler. Slowly the twins realize what it’s like to be loved and cared for unconditionally. Although they talk about running away they each end up on separate adventures. Florida and Tiller adventure down the river and Dallas and Sairy take a hike over the hills. Through all of it the four characters realize that Ruby Holler is truly their home and their doubts get answered along the way.
The caretakers of the Boxton’s children’s home try to stir up trouble trying to find the treasures that Tiller and Sairy hide in the woods of their home. Z, their neighbor, acts as a double agent until the older couple and the twins return. Other troubles stir up the plot such as both sets of adventurers get lost, Tiller’s heart attack, the twins trying to run away and acting like goofballs, and plenty more.
This book, while sweet and whimsical addresses some serious questions and topics children might not be aware of and connects to them in a personal way. It talks about orphans and the corrupted system, aging among parents, coping with nightmares and bad memories, the confusing reality of raising children at all stages of development, being your own person, along with any number of extra things.
Uniquely, this novel does not have a resolute ending. It does not reveal if Z is the twins’ father, or if the twins got adopted for sure, or what happens to the Trepids and the children in the home. After all, that is what the real world is like.

Catherine Called Birdy

Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

girl writing book cover

BIBLIO: 1994 Clarion Books/ Houghton Mifflin Publishers, ages 12 through 15, $13.95.
REVIEWER: Gwen Harter.
​FORMAT: Chapter Book
ISBN: 0-395-68186-3

​As a medieval historical fiction story this book is highly entertaining and fits closely with the norms of several hundred years ago. Written as a diary the reader sees the world through the eyes of the mischievous young Catherine, affectionately called Birdy. These are thirteen year old Birdy’s entries for an entire year and accounts all of the exciting feasts and dreary days. Most importantly she writes about the numerous suitors she must meet and the inevitable reality of an arranged marriage and the lady’s duties that accompany her emerging adulthood. Through her the reader gets to meet some dynamic characters, some of which she loves and some of which she loathes, such as her brothers Thomas, Robert, and Edward. Her mother, father, Uncle George, and her caretaker Morwenna. Not to mention Birdy’s realistic and relatable friendships with Perkins, Gerd, and Aelis, and the descriptions of adventures she has with them that often leads to scolding. All of this despite the fact that she wishes to run away and take up any other occupation besides wife. It is easy to fall in love with this sensitive and spunky young girl; to connect with her hopes, dreams, and interests because they are very much like a modern child’s. Her chores however accurately depict those of the time including spinning, sewing, and making disgusting ointments for healing. There is never a dull entry, even the ones that are one word long are quippy and worth the read. We see her antics of burning down the privy, watching a hanging, the birth of a sister, and rescuing a circus bear to name a few of the most memorable. Overall this book is a great way to delve into the history of the medieval times and to gain some perspective as to what it would be like to be a child in a time that was such an oppressing time to be a child and a girl at that.

Charles and Emma

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

 silhouette book cover

BIBLIO: 2009 Henry Holt and Company LLC, ages 12 and up, $18.95.
REVIEWER: Gwen Harter.
​FORMAT: Chapter Book
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8721-5​

​This is a charming well written biography of the life of Charles Darwin. Like most biographies it is hard to capture everything so this particular one focuses on Charles domestic life after his marriage to his wife Emma. The book is structured like a fiction title in that it is easy to read and told with heavy third person narrative with plenty of “dialogue” meaning the words the author found in letters were used as the works. She fills in the details with general details about the setting, person’s temperament, and the Victorian era. There is a Table of Contents like in most nonfictional books along with a foreword, picture inserts, family tree, source notes, a selected biography, and a detailed index. In the beginning of each chapter the author leaves a written quote from a letter or reading material that directly relates to the subject of the chapter. The author at the beginning of the bibliography also offers two websites among her sources for further investigating for the curious mind.
The book begins with Darwin debating the pros and cons of gaining a wife and family that comes along with marriage. He obviously decides to marry, his first cousin, the lovely Emma. The story picks up after his five year long journey on The Beagle, the trip where he studied finches and began to develop his theories of evolution. His internal struggle with marriage to Emma, the theme of the book, revolves around their differences in opinion about religion. Charles worries a devoted Christian like Emma would have trouble loving a questioning scientist like himself. The story briefly covers their casual courtship, engagement, and then their happy life of being married. The reader follows the newly wed thirty year olds as they have their first child in London, experience the house at Down as it fills up with their plentiful litter of children. Grief is felt at the deaths of two babies and the darling of the family Annie, and the constant sickliness of the members of the home. Joy over the seven surviving children, Darwin’s success, and being a part of the countryside. This book highlights the Darwins’ domestic life but does bring the scientific works of Charles through encounters with his academic friends and the repeated mention of his daily routine, a large part of it studying barnacles, pigeons, and orchids in his study. While the Darwins had their struggles and their triumphs the author made sure to make the reader aware of just how much love this famous family had for each other and how they persevered and made a great life for themselves.
This book won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults in 2010.