The Midnight Kittens // by Dodie Smith

//published 1978//

Growing up, The Hundred and One Dalmatians was one of my very favorite books, and I read it so many times.  The amazing illustrations by Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone still make me so happy and the story is just too perfect for words.  More recently, I discovered that there was actually a sequel!  And while The Starlight Barking was a little strange (and had actual magic), it was still a lot of fun.  Now for some reason, Goodreads has The Midnight Kittens listed as Book #3 in the Hundred and One Dalmatian series, so I decided to give it a go.  I found a secondhand copy on eBay, and was curious to see how it tied into the other two books.  The short answer?  It doesn’t.  So that was the first disappointment.

The next disappointment was that this book just wasn’t… interesting?  I’m not even sure what the word is that I’m looking for.  I’ve only read a couple of Smith’s books.  Most recently, I read I Capture the Castlewhich, while it wasn’t an instant classic for me (as it is for so many others), I still found incredibly readable – the writing itself was a delight, and the story very well-crafted.  But The Midnight Kittens lacked that.  The story was directionless and the characters not particularly interesting.  I just couldn’t get into it.

Basically, Tom and Pam are twins (around 12 years old) who have been going to school in London, but live with their Gram in Suffolk, as their parents died when the twins were quite young.  The story revolves around a long weekend that they spend visiting Gram.  Except… not much actually happens.  They stay up late to see if they can see some wild hedgehogs come to eat the milk and bread Gram has set out, and instead see four kittens.  Pam immediately decides that they are magic kittens (??).  Over the course of the weekend, they take a tour of a local house, a run-down mansion called Freke Hall.  The next day they go with Gram to visit a friend of hers in a nursing home, and staying in the same home is a very old lady who once lived in Freke Hall when she was a little girl.  She tells Tom and Pam about a secret room where she once hid a painting.  Tom and Pam sneak into the house when when they get home and find the secret room, and also meet some friendly squatters who are coming there to live (??).  Meanwhile, the kittens appear at midnight each night, exactly at midnight, to eat their milk and bread.  Tom is afraid to tell Gram about the kittens, because he isn’t sure if she will adopt them or have them put down (??).  Eventually, the twins tell this whole story to Gram (along with some other side adventures I haven’t bothered to include) and Gram doesn’t believe them, because Pam used to tell made-up stories, and suddenly they are all emotionally devastated by the broken trust and Tom and Pam go back to school heavily burdened by the fact that Gram doesn’t believe them (??).  But then Gram sees the kittens and calls them and tells them everything is fine and then everyone is happy la-de-da.  ??????

It was all just so rambling and pointless!  The kittens weren’t really that much of the story, it’s mostly Tom and Pam being obnoxious children – this book made me feel so old, because all I could do was roll my eyes at the way the twins were so annoying condescending towards their Gram the entire time – explaining to her how Tom is now agnostic and Pam is an atheist and how sad it is that people still believe in God (despite the fact that Gram does).  They’re always giving Gram advice about how she should be running her household and ways that she could be saving money and I don’t know, they just seemed so bratty the entire time, which is probably why I found this book so tedious.  They were SUCH know-it-alls.

The whole book was very disjointed and kind of read like a weird dream.  It was fairly short, for which I was thankful.  I was quite disappointed in this story, but at least I don’t have to worry about making room for The Midnight Kittens on my permanent bookshelves.

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July Minireviews + #20BooksofSummer

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine – 2*

//published 2006//

I recently reread Ella Enchantedwhich was a childhood favorite and is still a book that I love.  Full of delightful characters, fun world-building, and a really excellent story, I’ve read it many times and still enjoy it.  Somehow, I hadn’t realized that Levine had written another book set in the same world as Ella, although not a direct sequel.  Part of me wishes that I still didn’t know that, because Fairest was pretty terrible.  The main problem was the heroine, Ava, who was incredibly boring, and spent the entire book whining about how ugly she was.  I mean CONSTANTLY.  Every.  Page.  And it never really felt like a lesson came out of that, or if it did it was very muddled.  If the prince thought she was beautiful the first time he saw her… was she really not as ugly as she thought?  Because here’s the thing, ugly/plain people often DO become more beautiful in our eyes as we get to know and love them, but if you’re just sitting there and someone walks into a room – you don’t know anything about them, and literally just judge them on how they appear at that moment.  So the prince is either lying, has horrible taste, or Ava isn’t actually that ugly.  All of those answers annoyed me.

Anyway, the rest of the story was also very weak – I’m never a fan of a plot where the villain is actually NOT the villain but is being controlled by another, in-the-background villain.  This seems convoluted and confusing.  All in all, I skimmed large portions of Fairest, and had trouble focusing on the pages because I was so busy rolling my eyes at Ava’s endless whining about her appearances.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer – 4.5* – #20BooksofSummer

//published 1965//

This was my third read for #20BooksofSummer (you can find my original post here), and a thoroughly enjoyable one it was.  While I had read Frederica quite a while ago (2012), it had been several years.  At the time of my initial reading, it was actually one of the first Heyer books I had read (somehow, I didn’t discover her until adulthood!), but even after reading several of Heyer’s other books since then, I still found this one to be adorable and fun.  I think that part of the reason I love this one so much is that Alverstoke, the unwilling hero, falls in love not just with Frederica, but with her whole family.  I just loved the way that he went from being a selfish, lonely Mr. Grumpy-pants to being part of a happy, loving family.  While Alverstoke was a smidge *too* selfish to really be my favorite Heyer hero, he was still quite nice.  Frederica is a typical, but nonetheless enjoyable, Heyer heroine, being independent and intelligent without being too sassy and obnoxious.  She doesn’t take any nonsense from Alverstoke (or anyone else) and is such a wonderful sister.  My only complaint about her was how she could possibly be blind to her sister’s preferred beau??

All in all, Frederica is a delightful read for anyone looking for a bit of relaxation.  I wasn’t feeling super great over the weekend, and this ended up being the perfect book to devour.

Scotty by Frances Pitt – 3.5* – #20BooksofSummer

//published 1932//

I purchased this book years ago at a book sale somewhere, but somehow had never gotten around to reading it before.  This ended up  being a perfectly enjoyable, although not outstanding read about a Highland fox cub who is raised in captivity buy then escapes and adjusts to life in the wild.  It had a very Jim Kjelgaard-y vibe for me, and it was fun to read an outdoors book about an area of the world that is unfamiliar to me.  It was written between the Wars, so it was also an interesting, if somewhat limited, glance into life when things were starting to really undergo a big cultural change.  While I’m not convinced this will be a classic that I read time and again, it was still engaging – and also Book #4 for #20BooksofSummer!

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit – 4.5* – #20BooksofSummer

//published 1907//

This book is so precious that I just wanted to eat it up.  Every time I thought the story couldn’t get more adorable, it did.  These are the kind of children’s books that I grew up with, and I can’t believe that I didn’t discover Nesbit until adulthood!  This wasn’t a story full of angst or the need for anyone to “discover” herself – just a roly-poly happy story about four children and some magical adventures.  I can’t wait to read more Nesbit!!!  #6 for #20BooksofSummer.

NB: #5 for the list is actually A Wrinkle in Time which I have already read but won’t be reviewing until I have finished some more books in the series.

June Minireviews – Part 3

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

The Distance Between Us by Kasie West – 3*

//published 2013//

I’ve read a couple of Kasie West books, and I really like them.  They’re everything YA chick lit should be – fluffy, funny, a little bit ridiculous, and overall just happy.  They aren’t full of ridiculous amounts of angst or sexual dilemmas, just straightforward little stories with likable characters.  That said, this wasn’t really my favorite book, mainly because I got so tired of Cayman constantly assuming that she already knows what everyone is thinking/what their motivations are… and she’s wrong a LOT.  Consequently, all the misunderstandings seemed like they could have been avoided easily if Cayman would just USE HER WORDS and have some conversations.  Despite my aggravation with her at times, I still liked Cayman and basically everyone else as well.  Perfectly happy for a one-time read, and I really need to delve into some more of West’s back catalog.

Elizabeth Bennet’s Deception by Regina Jeffers – DNF (#20BooksofSummer)

//published 2015//

I don’t usually worry about updating you all on DNF books, but since this was on my original list for my #20BooksofSummer challenge, I thought I would let you know that it was SO terrible that I didn’t even bother finishing!  If you’re interested in the full rant, be sure to check it out on my P&P blog here.  Meanwhile, I’ve selected another book to finish out the 20 Book challenge!

The Holiday Swap by Zara Stoneley – 3*

//published 2016//

This was a free Kindle book that I got a while back.  This summer, when we’ve been taking the Zeppelin out for the weekend, I’ve been loading some super fluffy Kindle books so I have plenty of spares, and this one totally fit the bill.  Two friends have two bad romantic situations and decide to switch homes for a few weeks.  While I enjoyed this story while I was reading it, it didn’t really inspire me to find more of Stoneley’s books, and I don’t really see myself going back to this one.  It was a little too heavy on the “finding the right man fixes all your problems” (and I say this as someone who is happily married), and so it ended up feeling like neither of the women really grew that much – they just switched out their loser boyfriends for nice ones.  It also seemed like it ended kind of abruptly – this is definitely a book that would have benefited from a little epilogue from a few years later talking about how happy everyone is.

The Pursuit of Mary Bennet by Pamela Mingle – 3*

//published 2013//

Yet another book that I really wanted to like more than I did.  While this was a perfectly pleasant sequel focusing on Mary, it was just rather unexciting.  Lydia shows up with a new scandal trailing behind her, but somehow the story just didn’t quite click together.  Many of the characters seemed rather stagnant, and I felt like Henry, in particular, was inconsistent.  I did like Mary and it wasn’t a terrible story, but not one that I particularly see myself returning to.

My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse – 4*

//published 1919//

In my quest to read all of Wodehouse’s books in published order, this collection of short stories, many of which feature the Bertie/Jeeves combo, was next on the list.  While Jeeves and Bertie made their debut in another short story collection (The Man With Two Left Feet), it is here that they begin to genuinely become the individual characters that are so beloved.

Overall, this collection was much more up to classical Wodehouse levels.  While the Bertie tales were my favorites, there were some other solid little tales in this collection.  This was the first collection where it felt like Wodehouse genuinely decided that all of this worrying about being serious stuff was really nonsense, and instead just embraced the joy of happy chaos.

Swamp Cat by Jim Kjelgaard – 3.5*

//published 1957//

It had been a while since I picked up a Kjelgaard, and this was another one that I hadn’t read as a youth – so apparently our library didn’t have it!  From the title, I assumed that the story was going to be about a Florida panther or a bobcat or some other type of wild cat – but it was actually about a regular domestic cat!  Of course, Frosty isn’t really a REGULAR cat, as he learns to survive, and thrive, in the wilds.  He of course adopts a young man who lives off the land, and I quite enjoyed the parallel story of Andy and the beginnings of his muskrat farm (right??).  All in all, this was a surprisingly engaging tale.  I read it as a free Kindle book, but I would definitely like to add it to my hard-copy collection if I can find a copy.

June Minireviews – Part 1

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me…

The Wrath & the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

//published 2015//

I’ve seen this book pop up here and there on various lists and reviews.  A retelling of One Thousand and One Nights (ish), it’s set in a desert country where magic isn’t an impossibility, even if it isn’t terribly common.

I really wanted to like this book, but I honestly just found it rather boring.  The first half of the book is soooo slow.  Basically nothing happens except listening to Shahrzad have a lot of feelings.  She purposely becomes Khalid’s bride so she can get revenge on him because she hates him so much, but it takes her roughly .03 seconds to fall in love with him, and then we have PAGES of her agonizing about her feelings and wondering how she can have sympathy for this horrific monster.  I’m not a huge fan of instalove, but I can understand its sometimes necessity to make a story (kind of) work, but in this case it verged on the absurd.  I will say that what I did like was that eventually Shahrzad and Khalid have a REAL CONVERSATION where they both explain their back stories and are honest with each other, which I really, really appreciated because I HATE it when characters lie to this person they supposedly love more than life itself.  But that conversation happens way further down the line than it should have.

Initially I was still planning to read the second book just to see how everything comes out, but life interfered and it was a few days before I had an opportunity to pick it up.  That’s when I realized that I actually just didn’t care enough to plow through another 400 pages.  The Wrath & the Dawn wasn’t a bad book, and I think that if I had gone straight into the second book I would have probably enjoyed that at about that same middling level, but in the end I just wasn’t that intrigued.  There were things I liked about this book, but the overall incredibly slow pace combined with characters who pretty much do nothing but have a lot of feelings (we hear about Shahrzad’s the most, but they ALL have LOTS of feelings) meant that this was really only a 3/5 read for me.

The Man With Two Left Feet & Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse

//published 1917//

Fun little collection of Wodehouse tales – and incidentally the first time that the Bertie/Jeeves duo makes an appearance.  While these were entertaining stories, it was interesting because they lack the guaranteed lightheartedness of his later works.  While they definitely aren’t downers by any definition, there are little things that made me realize just how careful Wodehouse was to keep his best works completely frothy and untouched by any sad realities!  While this may not be the best place to start if you are new to Wodehouse, they’re definitely worth visiting at some point.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

//published 1977//

It’s kind of weird, because I put books on my TBR and then forget about them for years, then my random number generator chooses my next book… and then it turns out that it’s becoming a movie??  This is the second time this has happened to me this year!  I had had Ready Player One on my TBR forever, and then after I read it I found out it was becoming a movie in less than a month.  (Side note: Still haven’t done a compare/contrast on book v. movie for that one even though I have been wanting to ever since I saw the movie!!)  The same thing happened here – I got this book out from the library (it’s been on the TBR since 2015), and then realized that I had seen a trailer for the upcoming movie.  So weird.

ANYWAY this book was a solid sci-fi read that I did mostly enjoy, but with kind of mixed feelings.  I think what it really came down to was that it was a sad book.  Everyone is so mean to Ender (“for the good of humanity”) and I never enjoy reading books where a character is just being consistently bullied and hurt.  There were also some random scenes of violence that seemed abrupt and disturbing to me.

I couldn’t quite get my head around the ages of these kids.  I realize that’s supposed to be part of the controversy, but seriously?  Six years old?  I just couldn’t buy it.  I think this story would have made a lot more sense if Ender had been more like ten when the story started.  I just can’t imagine even a mind-blowing genius six-year-old having the emotional capacity to make the decisions Ender was making.

All in all, this was a thoughtful book, with a lot to really chew on, but the tone was a bit too heavy/downer for my personal tastes, so even though I gave this book 4*, I decided not to continue with the series.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

//published 1998//

This was a childhood favorite that is still a delight.  If you’re looking for just a fun, fluffy little fairytale retelling, this one is a great afternoon read.  It’s a children’s book so it goes quickly, but despite its short(ish) length, there is still enough world-building to give the reader a solid glimpse into Ella’s life and home.  I hadn’t read this one in several years, and I was happy to see how well it has held up.

The Squire’s Tale Series // by Gerald Morris

  • The Squire’s Tale – 1998 – 5*
  • The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady – 1999 – 4*
  • The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf – 2000 – 4.5*
  • Parsifal’s Page – 2001 – 4*
  • The Ballad of Sir Dinadan – 2003 – 3.5*
  • The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight – 2004 – 4*
  • The Lioness and Her Knight – 2005 – 4*
  • The Quest of the Fair Unknown – 2006 – 3.5*
  • The Squire’s Quest – 2009 – 4*
  • The Legend of the King – 2010 – 4*

I first stumbled across these books somewhere circa 2000 when I was wandering around the library.  Where I live, we’re about 40 miles away from Columbus, the state capital.  So we have our own local library and whatnot, which is perfectly nice, but if you want to visit a LIBRARY you go to downtown Columbus and revel – it’s huge and magical.  Anyway, now we have interlibrary-loan connected between my local library and Columbus, so I rarely have to actually go there – I can still access the entire catalog and have it delivered to my own tiny branch a mere five miles from my house, which is pretty amazing.  But back in the day my whole family used to go to Columbus and spend literally an entire day at the library (and were sad when we had to leave… I legit could probably spend days and days and days there before getting remotely bored) just wandering around, reading, making lists of books to read later, and finding various comfy corners to hide away with a new book.  And all that to say – The Squire’s Tale was one of the books I found on one of those trips.

The series focuses on various knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, and Morris consistently provides afterwords where he talks about where he found the inspiration for that particular book (frequently Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, but sometimes other sources).  Morris obviously uses a great deal of poetical license in his interpretation of various characters, but I love the way that he consistently makes the overwhelming majority of them likable. I remember reading Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga a few years ago, and I couldn’t get over how basically all of her characters were not very pleasant people – the books were overwhelmingly depressing and I barely slogged through them.  Morris presents a perhaps less realistic but far more enjoyable portrayal of King Arthur and his knights.

The first book introduces us to the two characters who become the main focus of the series, although many of the books branch off to other individuals – Gawain and Terence.  Gawain is a famous character of whom many stories have been told historically, while Terence is entirely of Morris’s creation.  The first book focuses on Gawain becoming a knight and questing, while Terence comes along as his squire.  But when the pair of them cross from our world into the world of faerie, it becomes a lot less clear as to who is the higher ranking of the two.  The friendship that grows between these two characters is one of my favorite things about the entire series.  They are both characters that I love so much, and Morris does a fantastic job of letting us watch them grow and mature as individuals and friends.

Throughout the series, Arthur is portrayed as a wise and just king carrying a great burden.  Other knights are both good, mediocre, and evil.  There are faeries and witches and everything in between.  Justice, strength paired with kindness, generosity, and chivalry and concepts that are woven throughout.

I love the way that Morris presents strong and weak characters – I don’t mind when an air-headed woman appears on the pages because there are plenty of intelligent women to balance her out… and plenty of air-headed men as well!  Morris somehow manages to make even the silliest of characters somehow sympathetic in their own way.  There are definitely gentle lessons throughout the books, but they never come through as polemic or preachy.

My favorites of the series are the ones with more humor/sass.  The first book is my very favorite out of the series, and even if you don’t feel like tackling ten books, you should at least read that one.  It’s a quick, fun read.  The other books vary, but the series on the whole is a solid 4* if not 4.5.

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan is probably my least favorite, which is a shame because I really like Sir Dinadan himself, and a lot of what happens in the book is very good.  But a large chunk of the plot revolves around Dinadan’s brother, Sir Tristram, who falls in love with another man’s wife.  The whole point of the story is how very, very ridiculous the concept of “courtly love” (i.e. it’s only romantic to love someone you can’t have), but it’s really a rather downer of a tale.  Then, out of all the stories to repeat, we get another version of it in The Squire’s Quest, which greatly reduced my enjoyment of that book as well.

But on the whole, the books are funny yet thoughtful, and so enjoyable.  I whipped through them a couple at a time, trying to pace myself.

I had only read The Legend of the King once before – I reread the series every time a new book was published, but hadn’t read the series again after the publication of The Legend.  I only had vague memories of the ending being satisfying, but sad – and that’s exactly what it was.  While the ending wasn’t a bad one, it also wasn’t a happy one – mainly because the ending of the Arthurian legend isn’t really very happy.

Still, it was a solid conclusion, and overall I can’t recommend these books highly enough.

Understood Betsy // by Dorothy Canfield

//published 1916//

Every once in a while I come across a book that I read when I was a lot younger, and I reread it, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why it took me so long to reread it.  Understood Betsy was definitely one of those books – I probably last read it in junior high, and I loved it so much during this reread that I couldn’t believe that it had just been sitting on my shelf for so long!

Originally published in 1916, this isn’t a tale of high adventure or great drama.  Instead, it’s a fairly simple story about a young orphan girl who goes from living with a hovering, over-indulgent pair of aunts to live with her down-to-earth cousins in the country.  At its heart, it is about Betsy learning to be more independent and confident, and, in the process, learning some life lessons.  In some ways, the story is almost polemic, as Canfield obviously feels quite strongly about the importance of letting children experiment and live their lives, having them spend a great deal of time out-of-doors, and letting them learn at their own pace.

The story begins with Elizabeth Ann, and the description of her current life.  Canfield tells us of her circumstances in a very wry tone of voice that I found quite funny.  Canfield is never mean about Elizabeth Ann’s aunts, who are portrayed as loving Elizabeth Ann very much and wanting the best for her.  Indeed, that very desire is what makes them rather smother her with care.

Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity.  She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear.  When they were out walking … the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann.  If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily, “There, there, dear!  That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure.  I don’t believe he ever bites little girls.  Mercy!  Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him!  Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so.”

In fact, Aunt Frances is so good at protecting Elizabeth Ann, she sometimes knows that something will frighten Elizabeth Ann before Elizabeth Ann does!

But life changes drastically when the other aunt, Aunt Harriet, develops a worrisome cough and has to be taken to a warmer climate to recover.  The doctor doesn’t think it is wise for a child to be around this cough, and, through a series of events, Elizabeth Ann ends up being sent up to “the Putney cousins” in the wilds of Vermont.

Here, no one seems to think that Elizabeth Ann – immediately called Betsy by these relatives – ought to be scared of much of anything.  She’s expected to do terrible things, like chores.  She goes to a one-room schoolhouse, where the teacher has her reading with children older than her, but doing arithmetic with children younger than her.  She’s expected to help with the young children at school.  The cousins have a HUGE DOG!

These small adventures are just an absolute delight.  I could have read ten books about Betsy and been perfectly happy.  Watching her grow in independence is wonderful, not just because she becomes more confident, happy, and healthy, but also because she is learning about genuine love, loyalty, and independence.  I love the sections where Betsy is expected to do something, and she has to make decisions for herself.

Somebody had always been explaining things to Elizabeth Ann so industriously that she had never found out a single thing for herself before.  This was a very small discovery, but an original one.  Elizabeth Ann was as excited about it as a mother-bird over the first egg that hatches.

What surprised me, just a smidge, was how relevant so much of this book still is.  In this day and age, children are smothered and coddled more than ever, with every whim catered to and every moment filled with activity – so little room for allowing them healthy independence, exploration, and creativity.  The so-called education system is more concerned with test scores and getting kids into colleges than it is with actually teaching them the basics of understanding.  And on the whole, our society is becoming more and more disconnected from the simplicity of being outdoors.  (No joke, when I was a kid, I spent hours outside playing with a stick, which was my favorite possession, as it could become so many, many other things in my vivid imagination.  It was a very nice stick.)

Understood Betsy is one of those delightful books that stands the test of time very well.  It’s over a hundred years old, yet the story is still a delight to read, the characters real and relatable, the story thoughtful and challenging, but not aggressively so.  If you are looking for a story that is warm and happy, with just enough grit to keep you thinking about it for a while, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The World of Captain John Smith // by Genevieve Foster

//published 1959//

I grew up in a house stuffed with books.  Both of my parents are readers, and I think that an excuse to buy lots more books may have been part of the reason Mom decided to home school us.  I mean, the public-school neighbor kids used to come to our house to borrow  books when they had to write reports.  I distinctly remember my best friend, who lived several houses down, telling Mom that she had more books about Abraham Lincoln than the school library did.  :-D

My family especially loves used books.  All of us are quick to rummage through boxes of books at yard sales and flea markets.  You just never know when you’re going to find a treasure for a quarter.  All of us are drawn, like moth to flame, to those booths in antique stores that are filled with books.  We’re the kind of people who find a box of books on the doorstep when we come home  because someone left them.  “I know you like books…” they say.

All this to say that when my great-grandma passed away (I was around 11), it was natural that we ended up with most of her books.  Grandma had been a teacher in her younger days, and still had several shelves of books with CEDAR HEIGHTS ELEMENTARY stamped in the front.  Two of these books were rather raggedy, over-sized hardcovers by Genevieve Foster.  And I quite distinctly remember picking up George Washington’s World and falling a bit in love.

Foster wrote several history books in the middle of the century, and her passion was for what she called “parallel history” – fitting various historical events into their world-wide context.  As a kid, so often you study history in narrow chunks.  Ancient history.  American history.  Ohio history.  European history.  Reading George Washington’s World was the first time that I ever remember realizing – really realizing, not just knowing – that the American Revolution didn’t occur in a void.  Instead, it was just one part of a rich tapestry of important events taking place all around the world.  What was happening in France and Prussia was actually  just as important to our revolution as what was happening in Britain and America.  Events occurring in China were impacting people in Spain.  What was happening in Russia was changing what was happening in Italy.  Everything was connected, and Foster opened my young brain to that concept.

Basically, her history books focus on a random important historical figure, divide his life into 10-20 year chunks, and then discuss what was going on around the world during that time.  This was actually my first time reading The World of Captain John Smith, and despite the fact that Foster’s writing is aimed for middle school readers, I was surprised at how swiftly I was caught up in the drama of kings and queens and commoners.  I didn’t even remember that much about John Smith himself, beyond the Disney-fied Pocahontas episode (here’s a spoiler – Disney got it so wrong), so just reading about  his life alone would have been interesting enough.  But throw in drama over the throne of France, religious wars, fleeing pilgrims, treacherous explorers, angry samurai, a murdered queen, and some shipwrecks, and you have a serious recipe for some engaging reading.  Apparently, a lot of history happened between 1580 and 1631!

Throughout, the book is illustrated with Foster’s own drawings – and they are perfect.  They add so much to the story and do a great job of breaking up the text.

There was a lot to glean from this book.  I was very intrigued by the reminder of how big of a player religion was in various wars and royal takeovers during this time period.  It was a good reminder that when our forefathers founded a country that would separate religion from government, this is what they meant – no more slaughtering people because they were Catholic (or not Catholic); no more fighting wars because people didn’t agree with the ruler’s religious edicts.  When people start fighting about whether or not it’s okay to have a moment of prayer before a football game at a public high school… I just really don’t think that’s what our founding fathers were concerned about!

One caveat is that Foster was writing mostly in the 1940’s and 50’s, so if you are they type of person who is offended when Native Americans are referred to as “Indians” or black people are referred to as “negroes,” this isn’t the book for you.  Foster never does so in a condescending or offensive manner – they are simply the words that were used at the time, and she uses them.

I actually had a high appreciation for Foster’s balanced writing.  She doesn’t really present us with good guys and  bad guys, as so many history books are prone to do.  Instead, on the whole, she tries to show us people and their context, so while you may not agree with someone’s actions, you can at least begin to get your head around why they did what they did.  She also doesn’t particularly favor one religion over another.  She writes about Catholics, protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and probably others that I’m not remembering right now all with the same respect – not afraid to discuss the inconsistencies of many of their followers, but without attacking or belittling the beliefs themselves.

All in all, if you are like me, and just looking for a very basic overview of world history as a sort of refresher course, or if you have a younger reader in your life who needs a bit of history heading their way, I highly recommend Foster’s books.  I’m delighted to say that they’ve been reprinted as paperbacks, with all of their original text and illustrations.  Six of her “parallel history” books are available in these reprints by Beautiful Feet Books (plus several of her other titles) – Augustus Caesar’s World, The World of Columbus and Sons, The World of Captain John Smith, The World of William Penn, George Washington’s World, and Abraham Lincoln’s World.  I have no idea if these are available as ebooks, but I would think that they would lose a great deal of charm that way.  They are big and bulky, but honestly I found this to be a great bathroom book – who doesn’t want a few chapters of world history every morning??  :-D

4.5/5 for The World of Captain John Smith, and highly recommended.