Friday, August 21, 2015

Gone Crazy in Alabama (Gaither Sisters #3) by Rita Williams-Garcia

Swirl into the Gaither Sisters' hurricane-like family and discover their crazy history, relationships, and untold secrets. You might want to read the first two books as it helps keep all the characters straight and understand their personalities. While the three bickering Gaither sisters and two great-grandmas drove me crazy in the middle of the story, it made the message even more powerful at the end; that oppression manifested in society is hard to overcome externally and internally. Set in the 1960s, it follows 12-year-old Delphine, the oldest of the Gaither sisters who is the self-designated referee between her two squabbling younger sisters as well as their judge and jury. It gets her in trouble, but the end shows her learning when to speak up or zip it. Words are powerful as Delphine realizes when she and her younger sister gang up on the middle one and when she watches her mother squash her usual recalcitrant manner in a tricky family situation.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern hop on a Greyhound bus in New York and head south to visit their grandmother, Big Ma, and great-grandma, Ma Charles, in Alabama. Delphine has always watched out for the youngest, Fern, and the two sometimes gang up on Vonetta who has little power as the middle child. The three must face Uncle Darnell who stole money from them (in book #2) and was mixed up in drugs. Delphine is trying to read the Classic, "Things Fall Apart," a story about an African man whose traditional way of life is threatened by colonialism, religion, and modernization. "Gone Crazy in Alabama" echoes some of the themes in "Things Fall Apart" brought about by the Vietnam War, feminism, and the counterculture of the Sixties. Uncle Darnell's problems metastasize after serving in the Vietnam War and Big Ma does not accept change easily whether its starching sheets the traditional way versus using a spray can or getting remarried. Quite a bit is going on in the subplots of this story while the main plot follows Delphine who is trying to understand her family's mixed heritage, the verbal sparring of her great-grandma's, and her relationship with her sisters.

Don't expect a nurturing family where the adults say the right things and people are always nice. The author captures the messiness of families. Delphine gets hit. This represents the times. When I grew up in the 70's, it was common for my friends to get "hit with the belt" or a spoon on their bottom and not a sign of inappropriate disciplining, like it is today. Big Ma threatens with a switch, but she also hits Delphine in the face even though she doesn't deserve it. As the oldest, Delphine is often blamed for her sisters actions and is expected to be the model example. The harshness of the adults made me cringe at times but it is authentic and not commonly found in children's literature. Foster or orphan stories with protagonists in harsh conditions come more to mind than a family like Delphine's. Don't get the impression that Delphine's family is not loving, it is obvious that they care deeply for each other, but their ways show the complexities of relationships and the adults make just as many bad decisions as the kids. And in many ways the adults are the worst because they are in the authority position and abuse it through intimidation. While I find this bothersome, it is reality.

Delphine's mother, Cecile, is one of the hardest adult characters to understand in the series. Her manners are sporadically selfish, destructive, loving, and nurturing. She left her three girls when Fern was a baby. Delphine took care of Fern and (in book two of the series) the girls meet their mother who loves them but who does not know how to nurture. She changes just a bit with Fern but it is Delphine that explains to her why Fern needs her to show outward affection to some extent. While she does this for Fern, she doesn't with the older two girls. She's a bit of a tragic figure like Okonkwo in "Things Fall Apart" and it is easy to see why she gave it to Delphine to read in book two of the series. Cecile is a poet and can hurt or heal people with her words. Hers is the frustrated voice of women in the Fifties that had less choices and freedoms; whereas, the Sixties was a time of big transitions and changes in societal norms. Cecile is smart and it is implied that she felt trapped in the role of homemaker. Raising three children was contrary to Cecile's goal of writing poetry in a quiet setting and her only way of dealing it was to leave her children.

*a few small spoilers* and here I thought I would have a review without them. Gosh darn.

The reader does not know Cecile's thoughts and Delphine is constantly trying to understand her biological mother. This confusion reflects a child's viewpoint as kids usually don't understand adult behavior. They are trying to figure themselves out in the world and have limited experience to make sense of it all. Again, this adds authenticity to the characters and plot. Sometimes Delphine hates Cecile, but most of the time she loves her.  In this third book of the series, Cecile exposes her great love for her children and is silent under Big Ma's verbal abuse rising above the anger being hurled her way. It shows Delphine a way to handle her sisters and helps her make sense of her world. The beautiful poem at the end shows a mother who loves her children in her own flawed way and knows the power of words. Even though the reader never gets Cecile's point of view, the author does a good job keeping her character consistent.

On the other hand, the sheriff in this story wasn't as clear. I wanted more information on him. His character was developed to show some interesting contradictions and there was some obvious history between him and Ma Charles and slavery. The blacks in the South lived in more fear than the North and this is captured in Big Ma's attitude. She tries to hide her hair that shows her mixed heritage. People that are oppressed are belittled, kept ignorant, and stripped of being human. They feel worthless and fearful. Big Ma represents this type of oppressed individual. She lives in fear of White people and the KKK. When JimmyTrotter talks about being a pilot, Big Ma says that coloreds don't fly and that their minds are not good enough to handle all the decisions needed to do so. She does not let herself dream or hope for a future that empowers black people. It keeps her from understanding Cecile whose job is publishing materials for the Black Panthers. The fact that Big Ma gets married shows a shard of hope that she might change. She's so hard-nosed about her views, that I doubt she'll change too much.

The generations after Big Ma show the changing attitudes in African Americans and the feminist movement in the Sixties that redefined women's roles in society. The time showed a relaxation in racism and sexism. While Cecile and Darnell reflect those changes, Big Ma is the era before and represents one who clings to the security and comfort of the past. Delphine's generation gets to try and make sense out of the mixed-up adults. Lucky them. No wonder Delphine struggles to figure out what oppression means from ironing sheets to how she treats her middle sister to how it has defined her mother. What I liked best about this book is ultimately, Delphine has to look inside herself and evaluate her own actions. It's easy to point the finger at others, but not so easy to examine our own biases and flaws.

5 Smileys

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #5) by Nathan Hale

I can't recall a graphic novel series where I've read five books and given them all four or five stars. This guy just nails 'em every time infusing humor with his own creative juices to create a fictional account of history that is loaded with accurate facts. How the heck he takes grizzly information and makes it entertaining is the work of an author that knows his craft. I didn't even realize this book was about Harriet Tubman. I know... black woman on cover with the word, "underground." Duh. Must have been the jet-lag. I miss details on a normal day. Toss in a 20 hour door-to-door trip with a 12 hour time gain and my brain responds like a zapped zapata. Wherever your lightning bolts zap, make sure they hit this winner.

Speaking of messed up neurons, zappings, and lightning, Harriet was a bit scrambled in her brains too after an angry overseer accidentally fast-pitched several pounds of lead into her skull while she was protecting another black man. The injury left her with narcolepsy, a disease where she nods off to sleep. Imagine being on the run with slave-catchers and dogs hunting you, and your guide or abductor falls asleep in the middle of it! Yet, Harriet was one of the most successful abductors and when she did nod off she'd wake up and tell people she had a vision from God and usually it was a warning that danger was ahead.

The author doesn't gloss over the brutalities and continues to use the hangman for comic relief. Different people in history used violence to try and end slavery and they justified killing others to accomplish their means. Nat Turner and John Brown died violently but they did inspire others to seek changes in laws. Hangman reacts to their violence in shock even asking if Nat Turner got knocked on the head with a piece of lead like Harriet. Their suicidal strategy to end slavery is ripe for discussions and can be compared with current events.

Harriet, on the other hand, started her career in rescuing people because she was trying to save her family. Under the ownership of an oppressive white family, she was abused as a young girl and mistreated by other owners. Her amazing ability to not get caught as an abductor, led to her helping other families and at one point she helped Colonel James Montgomery on a raid where 800 families escaped north. The Colonel used more violence with his methods, burning down homes and Harriet shows she wasn't opposed to it. Again, I think the contrast between violent means and the later civil disobedience during the 1960s is interesting. Is there a best way to enact change in societies? How do people get laws changed? If they don't have access, how do they get societies attention? These are just a few questions that electrically discharged in my brain. You could pair this with the picture book, "Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation" by Duncan Tonatiuh. A thunderbolt series.

5 Smileys

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

"Castle Hangnail" by Ursula Vernon drips with irony and plays on fantasy conventions and tropes surrounding minions and evil villains. The guardian of the castle makes it clear from the start that he is a decent person although he looks forward to an evil master. As he waits for the new Master or Mistress he ticks off acceptable ones: Evil Wizard, Dark Sorceress, Loathsome Hag (although he's not thrilled about the slime she'll bring), Necromancer, Cursed Beastlord, Mad Scientist, or Evil Witch. The latter preferably with cats. He likes cats. When the ravens tell him the Master-or-Mistress is walking, Lord Edward, the talking armor, is suspicious but the guardian believes she is admiring the scenery. He is not the brightest of minions, but is caring, genuine, and hilarious. If you are looking for a fantasy that won't scare the snot out of your child, then take a look at this one. And it ain't all fluff folks. The protagonist, twelve-year-old Molly, learns about manipulation versus friendship and lies that hurt others. A bit like "Monster on the Hill" meets "Casper the Friendly Ghost," or if you like Eva Ibbotson or Jessica Day George's books then grab some popcorn and enjoy this one.

The minions at Castle Hangnail are proud of their place from the minotaur cook to the screwball goldfish. But the castle is in trouble. If the minions don't get a new Master or Mistress it will be sold and demolished to make way for an apartment complex. With the roof over their head and way of life threatened, they are more than anxious to meet the latest Master or Mistress. When Molly shows up, the only thing on her that looks evil are her boots. She's short. She's cute. And she's not properly unpleasant. In fact, she's nice! Eek! The hunchback guardian and talking armor are suspicious but not alarmed. Molly flatters Lord Tinman's fears away by calling him, "stalwart," but the guardian, whom she magnanimously names, "Majordomo," is still worried. If Molly can't complete a series of tasks given by the Board of Magic, they will lose the castle.

As Molly settles in, she makes friends, gardens, learns spells and slowly works through the tasks. She even gets the admiration of the townsfolk when she scares the evil developer out of town after turning a donkey into a dragon. All is well until the real Evil Sorceress shows up exposing Molly's lie and causing hurt with the friends she has made so far, especially Majordomo. The guardian also has to figure out who to be loyal to, a Mistress that is evil or one that is wicked? Molly distinguishes between the two in that wicked is scaring someone by turning them into an earwig, but evil is turning them into an earwig and stomping on them. Even the guardian recognizes that the Evil Sorceress does not love the castle or the minions and has to go.

Molly and the Evil Sorceress are actually friends and Molly explains to Majordomo how "She was mean to me, but then sometimes she'd be sort of nice too." As she thinks about it she realizes that the Evil Sorceress was only nice when she messed up which wasn't really nice at all. Then she thinks about how she'd take her magic and knows that her friend cared more about herself than Molly. Perhaps she wasn't ever a friend.

Molly decides that a witch takes responsibility for what she does and she apologizes to everyone for being an imposter and lying to them. They still accept her as their Mistress and they plan on retaking the castle. Majordomo accepts Molly even though he knows that he might lose the castle anyway. He likes Molly and gets over his fears to help her. Molly, on the other hand, must decide how to proceed with her friendship with the Evil Sorceress whom she now sees as the bully she is. When Molly is faced with getting revenge on the Evil Sorceress, she has to make a choice and between evil and wicked. An exciting climax along with plenty of laughs that is hard to put down.

5 Smileys

Friday, August 14, 2015

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Good fiction allows readers to acquire knowledge and understanding about themselves through experiencing with characters different emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. When readers gain self-identification from reading, the fiction becomes a tool for socialization and education. Childhood and adolescence is a difficult time because it is when self-identities are forming, but the brain is not fully developed making decision-making and self-knowledge a challenge. The difficulty for an author is trying to write with an adolescent mind, but using his or her fully developed adult brain. Good authors capture children's inability to understand other people and the confusion that comes with growing up. Victoria Jamieson does just that in this graphic novel combining text and illustrations to create a rich narrative that shows the complex mental state of Astrid, a young girl struggling with friendship and falling in love with a new sport.

Astrid has just finished grade 5 and is enjoying summer with her best friend, Nicole. Astrid and Nicole are in the backseat of a car looking dubious as Astrid's mom takes them out for an "evening of cultural enlightenment." Flashbacks show the two girls laughing at a poetry reading, sound asleep at an opera, and looking at modern art at a museum with question marks over their heads. When they end up in a building that looks like an airplane hanger full of dyed hair and tattooed bodies, the two have no idea what is up. When the program starts and the Oregon City Rollergirls show up to compete against Portland Rose City Rollers, Astrid is hooked on roller derby. Nicole, on the other hand, is not. She finds it scary to which Astrid replies, "Geez can be such a baby sometimes." Making friends during the teen years is not easy and often riddled with insensitive or unkind comments between peers. Later Nicole talks about wanting to sit next to boys and it is obvious that Astrid could care less. The author foreshadows the problems the two will have with their friendship from the get-go.

Humor is sprinkled throughout along with other subtle messages about society's pressures on women to be thin and stereotypes of the mean, aggressive derby player. When they go out to eat, Nicole, who wants to be a dancer, asks for a salad because her mom told her to watch her weight. Astrid gets a burger, fries, and shake. You go Astrid. Later, when Astrid is with Nicole driving from a roller skating rink, Nicole's mom laughs at her for wanting to go to roller derby boot camp and says she is not "...what I call a big bruiser type." The implied message that roller derby is only for women that like to fight is counterbalanced by the kind encouraging notes sent by Astrid's derby hero, Rainbow Bite.

When twelve-year-old Astrid tries to roller skate she's spectacularly bad. She can't even put her wrist guards on correctly. This universal message of passionately falling for a sport, choosing a hero in that sport and envisioning yourself a star, and discovering that you really are not that good is something many experience. But Astrid never gives up and she keeps practicing. When she makes friends with another girl who gets the position Astrid wants more than anything, Astrid has to learn what it means to be a team player. These are lessons that apply on or off the sporting arena.

Astrid finds out from another girl, Rachel, that Nicole is going to dance camp, and is ticked so she does what most kids might do - she bikes back and forth in front of Nicole's house doing nothing. Nicole comes outside and the two talk about it and when Astrid finds out that Nicole has no interest in derby camp she is confused. Then when Nicole accuses Astrid of never asking her what she wants to do she feels bad. Astrid is not sure how to process all this, so she suppresses it. Instead of talking to her mom,  she lies and says she is getting a ride with Nicole and her mom from the derby camp. Once practice starts Astrid ends up walking or roller skating home alone. Astrid's wishy-washy teenage mentality comes across as authentic. Jamieson nails Astrid's character with thoughts that are not too advanced for her age and shows a young mind that is unsure of what decisions to make with changing friendships.

At camp, Astrid is one of the worst players. She makes friends with Zoey and the two help each other get better. Astrid has some tough practices that end in tears, but she sticks with it and the team supports her along with the coach. After one particularly bad day one of her teammates said that she barfed on her first day of practice. As Astrid learns more skills and grows in confidence all the while keeping everyone on edge as she is slightly out of control with her skating. Her coach teases her for giving her "daily heart attacks". Astrid doesn't feel mentally tough and is intimidated by the older girls so she decides to dye her hair blue thinking that will help.

Astrid needs to accept herself, find her identity, and roller derby is one way to do that. When she and Zoey are talking and Zoey says her nickname at school is "drama girl", Astrid says her nickname is "ass-turd". Then she thinks about how no calls her that anymore and that she is known as "Nicole's best friend." She is trying to figure out her identity and it no longer involves Nicole. She thinks blue hair will give her a new nickname, "blue-haired girl". Astrid doesn't tell her mom that she and Zoey are dying her hair, just like she hid from her that Nicole wasn't at camp. Astrid is independent and wants to figure things out herself. Her mom is pretty understanding and lenient, but does have clear boundaries. She tells Astrid she has to dye it back to normal when school starts.

Again, the message is that appearances determine how others look at a person and it also shows how adolescents do not have much control in their lives. Astrid's mom and Nicole's mom influence their daughter's choices and sometimes they don't give them a choice. When Astrid's mom takes her shopping and buys her a very young-looking lucky charm outfit, Astrid feels like a "demented leprechaun" and jokes about her luck on the day of practice. She gets teases a bit by others but it shows that her mom still sees her as a young girl and not on the brink of becoming a young woman. The author captures this awkward phase not only from the protagonists point of view but the parent's as well.

*spoiler alert* I think I'm getting worse at explaining a book and giving away too much. Sorry. Don't read on if you don't like to know too much plot.

The illustrations shine and add many more emotions than found in the text. Astrid has gotten in a fight with her new friend, Zoey, and is full of anger.  She jokes that her "black period" is like Picasso's "blue period" (she learned that from on an "evening of cultural enlightenment"). The illustration has her framed in a portrait with a black heart and a scowl. When Nicole helps her out and lies to Astrid's mom, Astrid is not sure about Nicoles's motivations and has a nightmare where all her friends, Zoey and Nicole, and her not-friend, Rachel are at the upcoming roller derby competition tossing food and drinks at her calling her names. Rachel has a camera and the speech bubble says, "Smile for the yearbook, ass-turd!" Yikes. Astrid plots ways to get revenge at Nicole and Rachel's dance recital. At roller derby practice things go wrong and she accidentally hurts Zoey. Problems continue to snowball as her lies ensnare her and her mom finally finds out. I laughed at the pictures of her punching her teddy bear that she sleeps with in bed.

When her mom comes to talk to her about being disappointed, she expresses her fears that Astrid's lying will escalate into making future bad choices like skipping school, smoking, or taking drugs. She moans that she doesn't know her anymore. Astrid's responds, "Well maybe I don't know who I am either!" The author captures a girl turning into a teen and trying to figure out who she is in the world. Astrid explains to her mom that she didn't tell her about Nicole not going to camp because she didn't know what was going on between the two of them. Astrid isn't sure if they will remain friends and the loss makes her wonder who she can identify with when she starts middle school in the fall. Astrid doesn't get in trouble or grounded and winks at the reader giving a thumbs up and advice to talk to your mom about mixed-up teenage feelings to get out of tight spots. I gave Astrid a thumbs-up back. Slap on your rollerblades, this is one darn good book.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Masterminds (Masterminds #1) by Gordon Korman

This is one of those books that most people liked and I couldn't remember the title two days after I had read it. When that happens I sort of wonder if I was having a bad-book-reading day or jet-lag brain. I had been on a plane traveling for 20 hours so maybe the neurons were short-circuiting? Whatever the reason I found it hard to get into the beginning with all the multiple points of view, was reminded of Haddix's "Running Out of Time," in the middle and figured out quite a bit of the plot, and then was plain ole pissed at the cliffhanger ending. I'm not a fan of cliffhangers except if there is some sort of resolution. This end left me with more questions than answers. I wanted to take a bite out of the back cover and spit it out like a Doberman Pinscher. As you can see, that is NOT a healthy reaction when done reading a book.

Eli Frieden lives in the town of Serenity where there is no dishonesty and everyone is kind. The thirty kids that live there have everything they want materialistically and socially, but not everyone is emotionally healthy or content. Malik thinks the town is too happy. Amber tries too hard to be perfect. Hector gets into trouble following Malik. Eli wants to explore with his friend Randy. When Randy takes Eli to see a sports car, he falls mysteriously ill ending up in the hospital. When he wakes up, Randy has moved away leaving a cryptic message as Eli uncovers the mysteries of Serenity with his friends.

The beginning character development has many different points of view. I thought this sacrificed depth keeping me from identifying or caring about any of the characters. Eli seems to be the main one I was supposed to get hooked with but he was sort of boring and his internal thoughts too few and far between. Normally, I like Gordon Korman's character development. I think it is a strength of his, but this crew was too forgettable for me.

The plot had some twists, some conveniences, and some unbelievable parts. The start was slow as all the characters are introduced but then the action picks up and goes gung-ho. There is an adult that helps the kids, but it is unclear how much she knows about what is going on in Serenity. She added an interesting element to the plot that isn't resolved in the end. The main twist is a great premise and once that was revealed toward the story's end, I was really interested. I think the sequel will be much more engaging because it will address the origins of why the kids in Serenity are "special." At least that seems to be the direction the plot will go.

Gordon Korman is coming to our school next week. I am going to quick read, "Swindle," so I can gush about a book. The students love that one and "Gifted." This one fell short for me, but I am interested in the sequel. Although if it is written with a cliffhanger ending... well, just picture me chomping on the book.

3 Smileys

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

I did the hokey pokey after reading this book. I thought I had missed much of the imagery the first go around so I went at it again. Ever want to squeeze every detail out of a book? I rarely do, so I take note when it happens. This book satisfies on all levels: plot, character development, imagery, tension, pacing, word choice, and more. A rich and complex murder mystery, historical fiction, fantasy, and allegory that crackles with multiple themes: the nature of lies, evolution, being an oppressed female in the Victorian era, relationships that nurture or destroy, faith, and revenge. And that is just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Turn yourself around and pick up this one.

Fourteen-year-old Faith is moving from Kent, England to the island of Vale, but circumstances don't add up. Her family doesn't usually go with her father, Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, on scientific trips and their hasty retreat from Kent has left her "...full of questions, coiling and writhing like the snake in the crate." Faith and her seven-year-old younger brother, Howard, sense her parents fog of unsaid words, whispers, and knowing looks. The two wonder when a disreputable man approaches Erasmus after church and hints at some oncoming scandal involving her father. But their questions go unanswered because they are children and their parents feel the need to protect them from the truth. Faith decides she'll look for answers by spying and eavesdropping on conversations and she discovers that her father is involved in some kind of fraud.

Faith adores her father, but is a second citizen in the family because she is a female. She is bright but all eyes are on Howard, for he is a boy that can make a name for the family as an adult. A daughter, on the other hand, cannot and is dependent on men to provide her living expenses as an adult. Faith desperately wants to be a natural scientist but that is not the way of the world during the Victorian era. While traveling to Vale, the carriage gets bogged down in the mud with all of the family's luggage. Faith's father humiliates her by keeping an importance piece of luggage, instead of her. Forced out of the carriage Faith rummages through his trunks to try and find some answers to her questions.

She knows that she is not important to her family and that she is not respected in her culture because she is a female. It drives her crazy. Faith is extremely bright and self-taught. She wants to go to school but only Howard can because he is a male. She wants to discuss excavations and science with her father, but she can't because it is not proper for a female to show she is clever. She is given the smallest room in the house where they were staying in Vale and she is delegated to eat with Howard in the nursery instead of sitting with the adults. She wants to go to the Vale excavation site but can't because she is female. Whenever she does get to the site it is by manipulating the men around her. She knows Howard is afraid but her father wants him at the site so she offers to take her brother. She plays Dr. Jackler and Mr. Lambert against each other using their jealousies and egos to get her way. She's clever and quiet but simmering with anger. Her anger spins and grows inside her like a complex spider web building in strength and increasing in size as the story progresses. She is pressured to be an invisible girl by the adults around her, but she sneaks around and spies on people because it gives her some sense of power and control over her life.

Faith's hunger for knowledge is so great that she seeks out conversations and does not mind being told facts she already knows. When she asks Dr. Jackler if he is a craniologist he frowns at her and stops talking. She backtracks and asks him if that was the right word so he can feel superior to her in the conversation. He falls for the ploy and starts talking again. Angrily, Faith thinks, "Right now, somebody was talking to her about science, and if she sounded too knowledgeable he would stop." She remembers trying to impress her father and colleagues as a young child by being clever and meeting uncomfortable silences. Her mother calls her "absurd" when she asks if an artifact is a glacial needle. She thinks something is wrong with her and that she is a "freak of nature."

Faith is trying to fit in with society's image, definition, and socialization of women, but finds it impossible. "Rejection had worn Faith down. She no longer fought to be praised or taken seriously. Now she was humbled, desperate to be permitted any part in interesting conversations." Doctor Jacklers then goes on to tell Faith that men's heads are bigger than women's; hence, they are more intelligent than females. Twisting the knife deeper he adds that too much intellect in a woman's brain "...would spin and flatten it, like a rock in a scuffle." Faith is crushed by his comment because he uses the science of craniology to justify putting down females. She always thought that science did not judge her because of her sex.

Faith's mom, Myrtle, is a manipulative social climber who is not close to her husband. In fact she is afraid of confronting him. She won't even confront Howard on using his right hand over his left and insists that Faith do it instead. This setup is necessary to the mystery for Faith acts in ways that the parent should and it explains why Myrtle was afraid of going against her husbands orders. When the housemaid, Jeanne, is accused of reading her father's letter, Erasmus attacks Myrtle unfairly for Jeanne's behavior showing his disregard and condescension toward woman, "I know to my cost that there are limits to the female understanding." Myrtle shrinks under his scathing comments. Their marriage is one where his word is God and he does not seek his wife out for discussions.

*spoiler alert* I am abandoning my attempt of a book review. I want to use this for book club with grade 5 students so the rest is an analysis/summary that will trigger discussion questions as I won't read this until the spring with students. 

Jeanne is accused by Erasmus for a crime that Faith committed, but Faith doesn't want to tell her father because she is afraid of losing his love. When Faith sees Jeanne weeping and dismissed, she goes to tell her father the truth. Even though Erasmus is a Reverend he has no forgiveness inside him and he explodes in anger when Faith tells him she's clever. He berates her and says a girl cannot be clever or brave like a boy, but she must be honest; however, while honesty is essential for a woman or girl, it is not necessary as a man. He cruelly says, "You will never be anything but a burden, and drain on my purse" because she is a woman who will not have a career but must rely on a man's charity for room and board. He makes it clear that she is of no value to him unless she can "hold steadfastly to the path of duty, gratitude, and humility." Then he asks her help for a secret mission and tells her to lie and deny it if anyone asks her about it. Faith, being clever, sees right through his hypocrisy. And even though he is a jerk, it is clear Faith loves him unconditionally.

After their mission her father shows up dead. It looks like a suicide but clues don't make sense and Faith thinks he was murdered. Her mother tries to cover up the suicide and has the two men that retrieved Erasmus's body lie and say they found his body in the Dell and not on the cliffs. Myrtle gets the others to agree, but one won't lie if he has to swear on the Bible. The Bible represents truth in this story, but science and evolution suggest it has lies in it. The author uses these two opposing viewpoints to add great tension throughout the story in imagery and different theories about the creation of man. Faith hates her mother's lies, but starts to think about how she condemns her mother for lying and realizes that her high moral path is not being honest with her own self. "She could brush away her mother's lie like a cobweb. But how many of her own strands of untruth would she destroy with the same gesture? Besides her last experiment with truthfulness had burned her to the core." The latter refers to her going to her father and confessing that she snooped in his personal belongings and read a letter, instead of the wrongly accused Jeanne.

Jeanne spreads rumors and half-truths that suggest her father's death was a suicide and at the funeral the people block him from being buried. Jeanne is mad at Faith's family because her mother berates her for how she cut the bread and is not nice to the servants. Faith gets back at Jeanne by using Jeanne's superstition to pretend her father's ghost is haunting her. Women were not encouraged to think for themselves and Faith uses science to debunk superstitions, so while Faith has learned that the old wive's tales are hokey, most of the townspeople believe them. The author shows how local superstitious beliefs are easy for Faith to manipulate and how uneducated people, such as women represented in Jeanne, are one of the reasons for them believing in ghosts.

Faith notices clues that don't add up regarding her father's death and becomes suspicious. Why didn't her father shoot himself? He had a gun with him. Where was the gun? It wasn't found on his body. Why was the wheelbarrow in the wrong place from when they brought it back after their secret mission? What was the mysterious letter burnt in the fire? Faith discovers her father's secret mission was to hide a magical plant called The Mendacity Tree or The Lie Tree, a plant that grows when a person spreads lies. In return the person can eat its fruit and learn secrets. Faith thinks someone wants the tree and that is why he was killed.

Faith is given her father's notes that she hides and reads in secret to learn about the tree from a scientific point of view. She symbolically stores her father's notes in the Mandarin snake's cage. The author uses snake imagery to describe Faith's feelings and refer to the Bible's story of Adam and Eve. As a result, the story becomes a rich allegory of truth and lies or knowledge and ignorance. Faith's father writes in his journal how others wish to believe lies. "The will cling to it, even if it is proven false before their face. If anyone tries to show them the Truth, they will turn on them and fight them tooth and nail." When his vision showed him that man did descend from apes rather than the Creation story in the Bible, he did just that, he turned on it and fought it tooth and nail. He didn't want to face that the Bible might be false. Erasmus wanted scientific proof of the Bible, just like Faith wanted scientific proof that women were as important as men. Neither finds evidence, but while Erasmus gave into lies that led to despair, Faith gave into truth and moved forward with hope.

The author weaves the Bible's creation story in with Faith's life morphing religious images into her own unique creation. Adam and Eve had the perfect life in the Garden of Eden, control over everything and direct communication with God, but they were forbidden to eat from one tree: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve was duped by Satan in the form of a snake to pick fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam and Eve were innocent and pure like children before picking the fruit, just like Faith is called “innocent and pure” by her mother when she refuses to let her testify at the hearing. Here, Hardinge plays on Victorian novels and Romanticism that focus on the child as innocent. Faith is far from innocent and is a knowing child that is "invisible" to adults.

Adam and Eve fell for Satan's lies and the result showed humans from then on had personal choices between good and evil, the experience of loss, and the death of their bodies. This is mirrored in Faith's father who chose wrong-doing and lost his career and life because he was self-delusional in his quest to scientifically prove the Bible was correct literally. He doesn't know that trees like the one in the Bible story show up in other creation stories, many much older than the Bible. Erasmus missed the symbolism in the Bible story that showed humans have choices that lead to consequences. People can choose to be honest or dishonest, they can murder or do good, they can help others or destroy them, they can use power for selfish reasons or not. Faith has a better grasp then her father's fundamentalist mentality because she has been marginalized by society and she has more empathy for the human condition.

Faith decides to use the Lie Tree to discover her father's murderer. When she first visits the Lie Tree it hisses like a snake. When she tells the tree her lie, that her father's ghost will seek revenge on those who wronged him, she methodically goes about creating it. She adds his tobacco to the fire to get his smell in the room, she switches the bell chords to sound like he is ringing for service, then she puts a gash in the curtain covering a mirror to keep his spirit from escaping and haunting the house. She plays off superstitions and likes the control it gives her that people don't suspect the shy, prim daughter of the household is the culprit.

Faith starts to examine clues to try and determine the murderer. She wonders why her father jumped off a cliff where a tree was in the way versus the side that had a clear shot to the beach below. She points out to Dr. Jackler that it was too clumsy for her father. When she asks about the bump on the back of her father's head and suggests someone hit her father from behind, Dr. Jackler condescendingly tells her she has read too many novels. At this point she realizes she must find the killer herself.

Faith is embarrassed by how she first approaches the plant using emotion versus the scientific method. She resolves to ask questions, observe, and use logic. Magic, she thinks, is an excuse to avoid looking for answers and cling to superstitions. After she studies her father's notes on the plant she determines that The Lie Tree is a symbiote, an organism that profits with another one from being in partnership with it. Faith takes her father's field kit and takes samples from the tree to study. She also takes a fruit that has grown from the lie she spread about her father haunting the house. She has a vision and discovers that Miles used her family to get access to the Vane excavation. She realizes that someone planned the murder and is linked to the excavation. She also wonders if the broken basket that almost killed her and Howard was intended for her father.

Her next lie is about buried treasure and duplicity that leads to theft, violence, and arson. The lies have grown beyond her control and are destructive and dangerous. Her first lie scares Jeanne so much she refuses to eat and it looks like she'll die. Jeanne is cruel and ignorant. She laughs when the townspeople were cruel to Myrtle. Faith chooses to seek revenge but changes her mind when she realizes it hurts her more than the victim. "A lie was like a fire, Faith was discovering. At first it needed to be nursed and fed, but carefully and gently. A slight breath would fan the new-born flames but too vigorous a huff would blow it out. Some lies took hold and spread, crackling with excitement, and no longer needed to be fed. But then these were no longer your lies. They had a life and shape of their own, and there was no controlling them!"

In an ugly confrontation, Faith gets attacked by her Uncle Miles when she won't give him her father's papers. Myrtle shows her tigress side and her character becomes more three-dimensional when this happens. She hits Miles with a poker to get him to leave Faith alone. Myrtle shows that she is not an idiotic shallow person, but one that will fight for her children and her own rights. She could have sided with her brother, Miles, because she did want Faith to give him the papers, but instead she protects Faith. Myrtle explains to Faith that when someone commits suicide the Crown takes everything they own, but that wouldn't happen if she gave her property to Miles. Faith is flabbergasted by such an unfair law. So often adults hide truths from children wanting to protect them when they should really be upfront and explain the situation. "The truth had been hidden from her, and she had been slapped for not knowing it."

Faith confronts Myrtle about everything she doesn't like about her personality: how inappropriate it is for Myrtle to be encouraging suitors right after her father's death, as well as, her vanity and her extreme attention she gives to her appearance. Faith is frustrated that her mother accepts Erasmus's death as suicide and won't listen to her suspicions. Myrtle explains her actions to Faith as fighting for her family's survival and using the only weapons she has - her looks. She describes women being on a battlefield with no weapons and unable to show they can fight. "But fight we must, or perish." Faith realizes that her comment to her mother and thoughts of hatred or "you disgust me" as being hypocritical like when her father scolded her for reading his letter. How could Faith claim a higher moral ground when her own actions had hurt people too? She slowly empathizes with her mother and by the end the two show that they can respect each others differences.

Faith kept telling Howard that ghosts only hunt bad people and if he was a good boy and said his prayers and copied his scriptures the ghost wouldn't haunt him. But Howard can't copy scriptures because he is a lefty. Children were forced to use their right hand and Howard had a jacket designed so that he couldn't use his left. Faith had to ensure he wore it under Myrtle's orders. Howard asks the Wise Man (or Faith) from the play theater they made if it was all his fault that his father was dead and haunting the house. When the Wise Man says "no" but that Faith will go to Hell because she has been bad, Howard rips the character up symbolizing the death of Faith's oracle. The Wise Man is supposed to tell the truth, but this is really a lie because Faith is the real voice behind the pretend character. Howard needs to see Faith as a woman and Faith needs to change from being invisible to the world to visible even though it will mean rejection from most. It takes courage to stand alone and pave new roads where none have gone before. Faith will do just that if she embraces becoming a scientist. Next, the two kill the lie that has been dodging Howard which is denying that he is left-handed. They rip up the jacket, showing they are prepared to accept the truth and the consequences.

In a subplot Faith becomes friends with Paul, the curate's son. He is only person she has confided her suspicions to and he helps her try and capture the murderer, but theirs is a rocky friendship. When Faith goes to the tree and Paul follows her, she confronts him with a gun and says she will shoot him. Her lies have twisted her so that she can't see right from wrong. She has two choices: harm Paul and embrace evil or darkness or enlist his help. She realizes that she has never lied to Paul and thinks of the different types of lies: kind lies, frightened lies, predatory lies, half-lies, self-delusional lies, and more. She realizes that her father didn't help Winterbourne and let him die because he coveted the tree. She is disillusioned that her father, the man she idolized and compared to God, would choose to let a man die rather than help him. It is difficult when children realize their parents are human.

When Faith tells Jeanne that she was the ghost, Jeanne responds with anger and hatred. Faith does not and it shows her growing up and taking responsibility for her actions, as well as, letting go of her anger. She says that she got a "tiny ribbon of herself back." Faith chose to not be like her Father. She does not want someone to die because of of her lies. Then she concocts a way to get the murderer to confess with Paul's help; however, she is wrong in her deductions and almost dies as a result.

Faith shows great empathy with her enemies as well as those she likes. She realizes that the murderer is similar to herself as Faith understands "calculated, cold-burning revenge." Again, Faith chose to not give into her anger to the point of taking another life. Faith cleverly escapes but allows herself to get captured when she realizes that the rest of her family's life is in danger. She shows that she is not so different than Myrtle who was doing all she could to ensure that her family would have a roof over their heads and food on their table. The character arc of Faith shows a girl seeking revenge, finding it within her power to really harm those who have wronged her, but rejecting it for compassion and love.

In an exciting conclusion, Faith thinks about how she is not credited for her part in solving the murder and becomes invisible again. She is not full of anger any more and she resolves to fight for her rights even though she knows she will be ostracized and isolated. She also reflects that her father didn't forgive her but she forgives him. Forgiveness is the step to letting go of hatred and not seeking revenge. Myrtle supports Faith at the end with her notion to be a scientist. Myrtle does not feel sorry for herself and regrets that her husband never opened up to her. When Myrtle starts concocting a plan to get Clay, Paul's dad, her late husband's rectory position, Faith is no longer disgusted but sees Myrtle as a "perfectly sensible snake, protecting her eggs and making her way in the world as best she can."

Hardinge's book shows what happens when people try to oppress other people and don't treat them with respect, how relationships filled with lies and anger are destructive, and how each person has a choice to do good or evil in the world. The complexity of the book and weaving of themes and genres is quite brilliant and if you have read this long-winded analysis or summary, then you might feel like you did the hokey pokey and turned yourself around. I know I have. I've never picked a Carnegie Medal contender before but I hope I see this one get some kudos.

5 Smileys