Running Out Of Time – by Margaret Peterson Haddix (1995)

Running Out Of Time

Margaret Peterson Haddix is best known for her book series “Shadow Children” and “The Missing”. But her earliest book – a standalone novel – is “Running Out Of Time”, the story of an Indiana community in 1840. The main character is 13-year-old Jessie, one of six children. Her father is the local blacksmith and her mother the midwife. Although life is full of hard work and no luxuries, Jessie is content with her life.

When several of the neighbor children fall ill with diphtheria, Jessie’s mother begins to act strangely, then quietly tells her daughter a secret: it is actually 1996, not 1840. Years before, the adults in the community made a choice to live without the conveniences of modern life. They agreed to be part of a historic reconstructed village that tourists could view through hidden cameras. The adults all know the truth, while the children are blissful ignorant. Families were supposed to be able to leave any time they wanted, but things have changed and now no one is allowed to leave.

Jessie’s mother is desperate to get some modern medicine for those who are ill, and keep the diphtheria from spreading. She tries to describe the outside world to Jessie, and quietly sends her out to seek a person she believes will rescue them. The new world is a confusing and scary place, but Jessie knows she needs to find someone to help the village before people start dying.

This is a great first novel from Ms. Haddix. There are different recommended reading ages, from 3rd to 8th grade. Personally, I think some of the concepts would be a little overwhelming for third and fourth graders. I would say the book is suited for anyone 5th grade and older.

Help! I’m A Prisoner In The Library! – by Eth Clifford (1979)

Help I'm a Prisoner In The Library

Ten-year-old Mary Rose and 7-year-old Jo-Beth are with their dad, being driven to an aunt’s house, when they run out of gasoline. Dad grabs the gas can and starts walking for the nearest gas station, leaving the girls in the car. When the younger sister Jo-Beth desperately needs a bathroom, they leave the car and walk several blocks to a library. The librarian, who is closing up as they come in, never sees them, and inadvertently locks up the place with the girls still there. And that is how their adventure begins!

I loved this fun, uncomplicated story. The library that the girls are trapped in is actually a hundred-year-old house that’s been converted into a children’s library/museum combo. The unusual sights the girls see during the night keep the story interesting. The story will appeal more to girls than to boys, since the main characters are female. The recommended reading level is 2rd-5th grade, although I think it could easily be enjoyed as a family book read aloud.

The book was first published in 1979, which explains the dated locks on the library door. Apparently the old house/library still had the original  skeleton keys on the doors, which meant you literally couldn’t get out the door without the key – a huge safety issue that is no longer allowed with modern building codes. So someone will have to explain to young kids reading this book about the way old locks used to work, which could lead to an interesting discussion about safety. The book has been re-printed many times, and can still be found on Scholastic book-club fliers, in libraries, and on Amazon.

Dragon Teeth – by Michael Crichton (2017)

Dragon Teeth

The newest Michael Crichton novel, published by his wife almost a decade after his death, is a gem of a book. However, don’t expect “Dragon Teeth” to read like most of his other books. Instead of technology, you will find a young man growing up. Instead of pure fiction, you will find a story based on real people who feuded with each other in the 1870s. Instead of the future, you will find the past.

The tale begins with William Johnson, a pampered young student at Yale University in 1876. When another student says he would never survive in the Wild West, William impulsively joins Othniel Charles Marsh’s archeological team to search for dinosaur bones in Indian territory. Part-way through the trip, he is abandoned, and joins a rival paleontologist Edwin Drinker Cope. What began as something fun for William turns into life and death, and by the end of the story the Wild West has made him tough as nails.

I loved the fast pace and the simple plot of the story. There was nothing complicated about it, no great mystery, just a great historic novel about human rivalry and the challenges of growing up.

 

The Racketeer – by John Grisham (2012)

The Racketeer

If you love novels that involve lawyers, wrongful imprisonment, murder mysteries, and hiding from the government, you’re going to enjoy this Grisham book. It begins with Malcolm Bannister, a lawyer who has been stripped of his license, serving a ten-year sentence in a federal facility. Convicted of money laundering- which he did not do – he now spends his time as an informal jailhouse lawyer, looking at other inmates’ cases to see if they have any basis to appeal their sentences.

When a federal judge is murdered in his mountain cabin get-away, Malcolm believes he knows who did it. If he can just convince the FBI of the identity of the murderer, he may have the rest of his sentence commuted. But as it turns out, the story isn’t quite as cut and dried as first thought. Does Malcolm have the right man? If he’s wrong, what are the consequences?

Camino Island – by John Grisham (2017)

Camino Island

When I heard that John Grisham’s newest novel was about valuable books that were stolen from a library, I thought: hey, just my kind of book – a book about books! And I didn’t even have to wait for months on a list to get it, as an express copy was available at my neighborhood library. It didn’t take long to dive into the story.

It begins with the heist. Five guys look to strike it rich by stealing original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which are under lock and key at the Princeton library. They succeed, and then have the problem of where to sell their “hot” items. The FBI thinks they know where the manuscripts are being hidden, and recruits a female author (Mercer) with staggering college debts to get close to the suspect.

What I enjoyed most about the novel was the close-knit community of writers on the island. They hung around together, commiserated when someone’s book didn’t sell well, and even tried to help Mercer when she had writer’s block. That would be a wonderful sort of place to live in real life.

What I disliked was the shallowness of the characters, which could have been much more developed. The shallowness  made it hard to stay enthused about the story. Mercer was a flat character, always whining about how she couldn’t think of any good story-lines. Bruce, the bookstore owner and suspect, was obsessed with sleeping with as many women as possible and making a lot of money. None of the original thieves were very likable either.

The book overall was mediocre. Mr. Grisham has obviously used up all his best ideas on earlier books such as: The Firm, The Rainmaker, The Street Lawyer, The Testament, The Summons, and The Last Juror. (He is, however, doing a great job in recent years writing youth fiction – his Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer series.) His best work always seems to involve lawyers, legal matters, and courtrooms. He would do well to return to his specialty.

 

Pigs In Heaven – by Barbara Kingsolver (1993)

Pigs in heaven 2

Who is your family, and where is home? Is it the ones you share a bloodline with, and their community? Or is it your adoptive parents and the new place you live? And who gets to decide?

This is the story of Turtle, a Cherokee girl, who was given away to a white woman, Taylor, at the age of three. Now she is six years old and considers Taylor her mother. While they are visiting the Hoover Dam, they manage to save the live of a young man who accidentally falls into a spill-off drain. This lands them in the news, which draws attention to the fact that a Native American child has been illegally adopted out of her heritage.

From that point on, there is a fight over who gets to have Turtle. The Cherokee Nation wants her back. But Taylor is willing to give up everything – her boyfriend Jax, her job, friends and her old neighborhood – to keep her daughter. They go into hiding, and are joined by Alice, Taylor’s mother.

Although this is a fictitious story, it conveys very well the agony that both sides go through when trying to reverse an adoption. It’s an extremely difficult experience for everyone, especially the child in the middle. The debate is further complicated by Turtle being a Native American child, therefore not eligible to be adopted by Taylor because of the Indian Child Welfare Act. There are no easy answers, and the decision-makers need to have the wisdom of King Solomon.

 

 

The Courage Tree – by Diane Chamberlain (2001)

The Courage Tree

“The Courage Tree” is the story of two mothers and two daughters whose lives intersect. Janine has an 8-year-old daughter, Sophie, who has gone to summer camp for the first time, despite having kidney failure. On the way home from camp, Sophie goes missing. The other mother is Zoe, who has a grown daughter, Marti, who is a prison convict. Zoe has orchestrated an elaborate scheme to free her daughter, who she is certain is innocent.

Both mothers love their daughters unconditionally and would do anything for them. But the actions of one mother may mean death for the other mother’s daughter. Throughout the story, the question is: how far would you go for your child? To say more about the story-line would give away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say this was a book I had a hard time putting down.