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135 Journals Book Review: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

30 Dec
Vista overlooking the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts from the New York State border at sunset

Vista overlooking the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts from the New York State border at sunset (via Wikimedia Commons).

What makes a book work? Plot twists? Action? Unsolved mysteries? Yes. . . but sometimes a book has a strange power that goes far beyond a heart-pounding plot. In The Red Garden, much of what made it irresistible has to do not so much with a dramatic subject but with the author’s masterful voice. This beautiful book is about the life of a western Massachusetts town called Blackwell, from its beginnings in the 1690s until modern times. It is told in a series of interlocking stories that are about characters in various generations from that founding time forward. In each story, there are connections to be made to previous generations, giving the reader a feeling of the cyclical nature of life.

I enjoyed hunting for the connections, and for the ways that history touched on the characters who were the subjects of the stories. But to me, that was not the best part of the book. What really worked for me is the masterful skill of Alice Hoffman’s writing. The writing was deceptively simple. It made the reader forget the complexity of creating multiple sets of characters and their connections to each other. It made the reader forget that although these stories were all set in the same place, each protagonist quickly became individual and alive, not just props in a larger plotline. The book has a touch of magic realism–for example, in the curious nature of one of the founder’s relationship with a bear–but because of Hoffman’s beautiful storytelling voice, those moments of mystery seem as real and possible as any others. To me, the book was entire in itself, enjoyable on its own considerable merits. Yet it also reminded me that it is possible to craft a book about something as simple as a little town in a forgotten part of the world and convey the idea that no town and no person is ordinary—that we are all full of mysteries and contradictions and possibilities.

Writing Prompt: Is there an author whose voice you particular love? Who is it and what do you love about his or her voice?

135 Journals YA and Kid Book Club: Infestation, by Timothy J. Bradley

20 Aug



These lovely meat eating ants are brought to you by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, via Wikimedia Commons.


And you thought YOU had problems.


Imagine you’re trapped in a boiling hot reform school with a small group of miscreant kids and one brilliant bug scientist—and that you’re surrounded by mutant ants who are bigger than you are. Hungry ants. This is what Andy Greenwood, an orphan with a penchant for running away from foster homes faces in Infestation, the first in a series of books by Timothy J. Bradley.


This summer I have read a large and varied number of young adult and kid books. Some are deep, some are fantastical, some are so irritating I wanted to throw them against the wall. Except that they were in my Kindle.


Back to Andy. Andy gets in a cafeteria food fight, and he, his roommate, Pyro (yes, he loves to blow up things), gentle Hector, Joey the Thug, and two other boys, Reilly and Shields, are sent to windowless, prisonlike, Block Six. But, just like so many things in life, sometimes bad luck turns into good luck. And good luck turns to bad luck. A giant earthquake rips through the land, freeing them (good) yet unleashing monstrous ant creatures, some of which are 8 or 9 feet tall (possibly not so good). They meet up with Dr. Gerry Medford, a young scientist who was at the school studying its then normal sized ant problem already. When the boys and Dr. Gerry meet up, they manage to hide away and brainstorm. One suspects that Timothy Bradley lovvvvvvves bugs, because he definitely did his research. Gerry explains that these mutant ants are unlike anything he has seen in nature and why. As I, too, have long been intrigued by bugs—as a little girl I would often spend long periods watching ants purposefully carrying crumbs into their small, sandy anthills—I too was fascinated by Gerry’s musings on why these ants were different. For example, I knew that ants could not be giant-sized—their exoskeletons only work on a small scale. But I wasn’t sure why. Gerry explains how muscles attach the insect’s limbs to its exoskeleton, and if the bug were human sized, the muscles wouldn’t have the strength to carry the exoskeleton’s weight. Andy also asks about how he learned so much about bugs (reading lots of books helps kids learn about a subject, shockingly). Gerry’s passion helps them come up with ideas to battle the ants, but each kid contributes. The same qualities that made each kid trouble turn out to be useful skills in this life-and-death situation.

Do they get away? What will they try—and what solutions work and don’t work? You’ll have to read this action-packed for yourself, which shouldn’t be TOO hard as it is written at a fifth grade level. But don’t be surprised if you accidentaly find yourself ingesting a bit of knowledge about the strange and magical world of ants as you follow Andy and his adventures. And watch out for book number 2!


Writing prompt: What is something you loved as a kid that turned out to be useful to you as an adult?

135Journals Book Club: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

2 May


A circus in the 1890s (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).


Erin Morgenstern conjures up a magical world within magical worlds in this inventive but accessible treat of a book. Set, mostly, in the 1880s-1890s, it is about Celia, a girl from New York, and Marco, a boy from London, and the terrible deal that is made by their guardians—that the two will have to use magic to compete with each other until one wins. What this means is a mystery. But this book is full of mysteries. Celia will perform as a brilliant illusionist in a very different kind of circus than the garish spectacles one usually sees. It is designed all in shades of black, white, and gray. It has a magical clock. It appears and disappears with great suddenness. And it is only open at night. Fans of this circus, called reveurs, start to follow it around, and dress in shades of black, white and gray with something red, so they can recognize each other. This strange landscape is richly detailed, and the reader can feel as if she or he herself is walking around eating one of the chocolate mice with licorice tails and feeling about the look and feel of this strange landscape

One of the things I noticed is that there are many story lines, and many characters, and yet, though the book shifted rapidly from one character’s experience to another, I didn’t feel lost. Every individual was quite distinctive. One reason for that is probably that they each had roles to fulfill—from Isobel, the fortune teller, who was in love with Marco, to the young twins Poppet (who got glimpses of the future) and Widget (who got glimpses of the past) , to Celia’s semi-disembodied and highly critical father, who used to slit her fingers to train her to use her mental powers to heal the cuts. For a long time, Celia does not know who her opponent is, but they collaborate on one mysterious tent, taking turns on trying to outdo each other with strange effects, such as a room where patrons walk through snow or a labyrinth that goes in all directions. But as the competition becomes more intense, so do the stakes. The path to discovering why they are on this path and what they should do about it is as labyrinthine as their tent.

One thing I did notice in this book is that the author made no attempt to make the characters sound as if they were living in the 1890s. Their speech and manners were completely modern. Their names are not reflective of the era, either—Tara and Lanie, for instance. I found it slightly annoying that a German character was named Friedrick, when the German name is almost always spelled Friedrich. I was surprised that no editor or copyeditor fixed that. However, that is a very small complaint.


I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Night Circus—normally I hate circuses, with their crowds and spectacles. But the author used her own magic to conjure up a world that was compellingly interesting, and I too felt the power of her ability to be an illusionist in her own right, transporting me to a world that existed only in our shared imaginations.

And, oh, fellow writers, here’s a few interesting facts about the author: She’s also an artist. And she’s been doing National Novel Writing Month since 2003. According to Publisher’s Weekly, ( lthe author said, “I never really planned what I was going to write beforehand and in 2005, when I got extremely bored with my novel-in-progress, I sent all my characters to the circus. For the two subsequent Novembers, I wrote pages upon pages about the circus, and then spent a few years turning it into something book-shaped. It is perhaps both a blessing and a curse that fictional worlds spring into my mind nearly fully formed and it takes quite a while to sift through everything to find the story.” She also has an entertaining website/blog:


Writing Prompt: What is a book that transported you to another world?