Mezzowriter's ReadWriter Blog

Reading, Writing, and The Search for Buried Gems of Literature

What I’m Reading #42: Out of the Ashes August 9, 2010

I was looking for a fast read today, so I picked up Michael Morpurgo’s Out of the Ashes.

It’s a simple, fast read, so this review will be too.


Out of the Ashes by Michael Morpurgo

Macmillan Children’s Books, 2001

Cover is a little deceptive; On first impression you might expect this to be about a wildfire.

Courtesy of

On New Year’s Day Becky Morley begins to write her diary. By March, her world has changed forever. Foot and mouth disease breaks out on a pig farm hundreds of miles from the Morley’s Devon home, but soon the nightmare is a few fields away. Local sheep are infected and every animal is destroyed. Will the Morley’s flock be next? Will their pedigree diary herd, the sows with their piglets, and Little Josh, Becky’s hand-reared lamb, survive? Or will they be slaughtered too? The waiting and hoping is the most agonizing experience of Becky’s life.


Strengths: As I’ve said, it’s a simple read, with just over 110 pages.  The narrative is straightforward and clearly constructed, in the voice of the 13-year-old narrator, Becky.  The simple language fits with the diary approach Morpurgo uses.  It’s a unique story about an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease, which may strike some readers as archaic at first.  Such agriculturally devastating illnesses would seem to have gone the way of polio and smallpox, when in fact these dangers still exist.  It’s a excellent way of bringing the subject to present day, particularly through the use of the young narrator.  However, I still got an unreal sense of not quite being sure where in time I was.  The only solid placement in time is provided by the author, who is firm that it recounts events of 2001.  A fast, interesting read.

Potential Flaws: It’s interesting, but not particularly gripping.  In some places, the lack of detail did make me chafe a bit as I was reading, but if Morpurgo is to remain true to his young narrator, he almost HAS to withhold more of the gory details.  Of course she would be sheltered.

My Rating:

Not fabulous, not terrible.  Probably very enjoyable to younger, middle-grade readers.  A unique topic, and as simple reads go, you could do far worse.


What I’m Reading #25: The Boy from the Basement April 12, 2010

I have to admit a certain morbid fascination with true (and true-ish) stories that would be good fodder for Lifetime movies.  I’ll admit that was the little corner of my mind that made me pick this title up.


The Boy from the Basement by Susan Shaw

Dutton Children’s Books, 2004

Courtesy of

From Booklist

Gr. 6-9. Imprisoned in the basement for many years by his violent father, Charlie, 12, is sure he’s being punished because he is bad, and when he escapes and is placed in a loving foster home, it takes him a long time to feel safe in the strange world outside. Through the truth of the boy’s first-person, present-tense narrative, Shaw transforms what could have been a case study of abuse and recovery into a searing story that is part thriller (Will Father find him and hurt him?) and part gentle narrative about finding a home. The psychology in Charlie’s therapy sessions is realistic; he longs to be back with his biological parents, and he desperately needs to believe they love him. But perhaps most compelling for readers are the details of Charlie’s long isolation. Here’s a child who has never seen TV or used the telephone. What is Christmas? Halloween? What is school? Then comes the quiet climax, when Charlie finally finds a place. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Strengths: This was a fast read, very simply written, but quite powerfully written.  Shaw does an admirable job of capturing the inner conflict and fear Charlie experiences after he is removed from the abuse he suffers at the hands of his father.  She also manages to show the lasting effects of this abuse in direct fashion; it’s genuine, and not overly melodramatic.  I found it refreshing that the story begins essentially at the point where Charlie accidentally (and completely unintentionally) escapes (or perhaps thrusts himself out) from the home.  Rather than spending large amounts of painful time detailing and cataloging the litany of hurt inflicted by his father, Shaw focuses instead on the impact and journey to healing.

Potential Flaws: While the simple, cleanly written, hauntingly real narrative is compelling, there is a bit of rosy idealism in the relative ease with which Charlie approaches his recovery.  It is by no means whitewashed, but one would expect a far more difficult adjustment to the real world.


My Rating:

I rated this 4 stars for its appropriateness for younger readers.  The messages it sends about the effects of abuse and the process of healing are thoughtfully written.


What I’m Reading #10: When Dad Killed Mom February 25, 2010

After an absence of several days, I’ve finally gotten back to this.  I have to mentally rewind to two books ago.

I’ve heard a great deal about Julius Lester as an author, but I think the only book of his I’ve read was To Be a Slave (originally published in 1968, thank you).  And I remember not being THAT particularly enthused about it.   If you’re interested in his EXTREMELY prolific body of work, you can check out Julius Lester’s website.  (I’ll warn you, it’s not the most exciting looking site, but it does have a lot of information, and it does look like he does his own work there, and the man IS over 70, after all, and….never mind.)  More information is also available at Amazon’s Julius Lester Page.

Okay, back to what I was SUPPOSED to be talking about, which was his 2001 book, When Dad Killed Mom.


When Dad Killed Mom by Julius Lester

Silver Whistle, 2001

Courtesy of

From School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up-Lester brings many attributes to his writing for young people: excellent research, a willingness to confront and present controversial topics, aesthetically whole characterizations, and insight on how young people’s concerns do not necessarily match those of their elders. All of these attributes inform this novel, which is narrated in the alternating voices of sixth- and eighth-grade siblings, but which takes on issues that require readers to have attained more maturity than the average peers of these characters. The title sums up precisely the plot: the chief psychologist at a small New England college publicly shoots his wife. The ensuing emotional, social, academic, and legal events are presented as they are experienced by the shy, artistic son and his slightly older sister, who is deep in the throes of a tumultuous adolescence. In contrast with Neal Shusterman’s What Daddy Did (Little, Brown, 1991), Lester depicts children who were well aware of trouble brewing between their parents. The adults in their lives after the horrific event include the mother’s best friend who, curiously, is the father’s first wife; their grandparents; the son’s art teacher; and the family of a younger schoolmate. The young people undergo personal turmoil, grief, and self-revelation as time passes. This seems to be the crux of the story: the only certain thing in life is change itself. Lester’s characters learn how to handle change or become imprisoned by their inability to handle life.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Strengths: Lester begins after the deed is done.  Instead of the events leading to the crime, the crime itself becomes a catalyst for the rest of the book.  I find this unique–or at least a lot less common, anyway.  Layers of fact are revealed over time, each more painful than the last, until much of the family’s history is reconstructed by the end of the book.  The end is sharp and intense–at least through the trial scenes.

Potential Flaws: I will admit, I almost put this book down.  It took too long to build momentum for my taste.   To appreciate a book of this sort, you have to be able to appreciate Lester’s extended back-and-forth examination of the siblings in the book.  As a reader, I wanted that to be over with and get to the WHY.  I finally got what I wanted near the end–but was slightly disappointed in the slightly-too-neat wrapping up of the loose ends when all was said and done.  It’s clear Lester thinks it’s important to show the gritty reality of things, but in light of that, I felt the ending stepped sideways.

My Rating:

Interesting, but not a real page-turner.