Review: Stumbling on a Tale (Suzanne Roche)

“Stumbling On a Tale” is the next novel in the “Time to Time” series by Suzanne Roche. Like its predecessor it’s written beautifully and sweeps the reader in the author’s enthusiasm for the time and place that the novel is set. Layers are gradually added to the time travel mechanism, and there’s also promise of more great time travel things to follow too!

Stumbling On a Tale

Stumbling On a Tale by Suzanne Roche is a beautifully crafted time travel novel aimed at middle grade readers (8-12 years old). It follows Book 1, Making it Home, in Suzanne’s Time to Time series.

The writing style and fluency in Stumbling On a Tale is just as wonderful as previously, but the style in mapping out the story line differs substantially.

Perhaps all sequels should be like this.

Stumbling on a Tale (Suzanne Roche)

Often, sequels follow the same format as earlier novels in a series – Suzanne does it differently in Stumbling On a Tale and I think the approach works well.

We have the same characters – brothers Henry and Max, and their older step-sister Peri, and we have the same scenario where they’re transported back in time. From here there’s a divergence in the structure.

Plot structure

Where the plot was moved forwards in Making it Home by laying out a series of tasks for Peri, Henry and Max to follow with a clear end goal in mind, the plot in Stumbling on a Tale appears at first glance to be stationary. The children are dumped in a forest and come across secondary characters who tell stories to each other.

And that seems to be about it. The children are lost in a forest – but have we lost the plot somewhere?

I don’t think so. It’s not until the closing chapters that the tales come into focus and their context with each other is made clear. Indeed, things are wrapped up very nicely.

But that’s not to say that prior to the revelation of clarity that Stumbling On a Tale is dull! Suzanne’s writing style is gently humourous and we get the feeling that this is an author who genuinely has fun in the time and location that she’s placed her characters – and she sweeps the reader up in her enthusiasm by educating us in a subtle yet effective manner through her narration!

Characters

My biggest disappointment was the loss of Peri as the main character (as she was in Making it Home). The focus in Stumbling On a Tale seems to be on Henry – although of course he frequently looks to his older step-sister and star of the last book.

Henry is not as strong a main character as Peri was. Mostly he just whines and wants to be at home playing chess. He’s a negative kind of a chap and I felt little sympathy for him. Sadly, Peri often seemed to be dragged down to Henry’s level in discussion. Actually, even one of the indigenous characters even noted how much they bickered with each other.

Thrust into time travel

I’ve always hated the confusion beset by unknowing time travelers. Not that I’d do any better, but I’m a reader and I’ve picked (or been given) a book from the time travel section off the bookshelf. Unlike the characters in the novel I at least partly know what to expect.

Peri, Max and Henry have their share of confusion but being younger maybe they rely on their adventure method of learning more than getting bogged down like us oldies who stumble and rummage around looking for previous experience to help us deal with problems. And with no time travel experience we’re lost and confused.

The children in this second novel of the Time to Time series have a new take. They’re ready for adventure (sort of – Peri is, and Max is young enough to, but Henry whines), but they also have experience of how their time travel works. It happened before, so surely they can follow the same rules and get back home the same way that they did last time?

There’s the catch. Either they’re prevented from following the rules, or the rules have altered, or they need to develop their ideas of the rules further.

In Making it Home, the time travel rules weren’t known, so the children – and plot – kept moving forwards. In Stumbling On a Tale the time travel rules aren’t playing and so present a problem. The children spend more time in mental solving mode – and this is the journey which moves the plot forwards.

Time travel

The time travel mechanism itself, as you can imagine in a novel for younger readers, isn’t exactly realistic, but it does fit nicely into the realm of magic and fantasy – and ideas for children to consider.

We’re reminded of the time travel method fairly early on. An antique is placed on an encyclopedia and the children are taken back in time to where that antique first came from. The return mechanism is slightly more complex – but won’t be mentioned here because that’s a large part of this novel!

I missed it when I read Making it Home, but I caught it this time; when the children go back in time, they ‘arrive’ in clothing suitable to the period. Often in time travel novels there’s a lot of attention given over to the transport of non organic matter (such as clothing) when time travelling.

Again, there’s no scientific explanation as to why clothing morphs from the style of one time period to another, but then again – this is a kids book! But the point is embraced here all the same, and indeed the clothing styles help the children (through Peri) understand something about the era in which they’ve arrived, as well as the status that they – and those they meet – hold in relation to each other.

I like the closing scenes of Stumbling On a Tale because we start to hit some of the deeper time travel stuff. I mentioned earlier that Peri, Henry and Max are in need of figuring out how to possibly expand the rules of their time travel and one of their discussion ends up with the idea of pre-destination – the things that the children did in the past had to happen because they had already happened in the present and had been already been recorded in history.

We can therefore deduce that we’re operating on a single time line, and not several time lines with alternative histories.

That said, there’s the encyclopedia. I mentioned in my review of Making it Home that the encyclopedia had an interesting angle, and indeed we are slowly learning some more of the intricacies behind the the mysteries that it holds – such as a change in location of publisher. The epilogue here adds another layer of of mystery of the origin and meaning of the book. I’m looking forward to reading more!

Print layout and quality

I’ll finish with a superficial look at the print layout and quality. It was a problem in the first book and I harped on about it in my review of Making it Home and I’ve since noted that several other reviewers have also mentioned it. It’s sad that it hasn’t been addressed in the second book of the series.

This print edition has the look of a low quality novel. The paper quality is good, but the text is faint. The point size is one bigger than previously which helps, but the text is squidged within a narrow print space with huge margins on each side so it looks like there was a problem with the printer – a possible scenario given that the Epilogue and following pages have a more sensible layout.

The images suffer the same problem as before – they’re too small. Perhaps this is an odd thing to say because they already reduce the amount of text on a page (leading to more page turns) so increasing their size would exacerbate the problem the problem further.

I’m in two minds about the inclusion of the captioned images. They seem like an easy way of removing description from the narrative which may be appealing for the young target audience and they do make the page visually attractive. But there’s no real right time to look at / read them because they’re relevant for a large chuck of text on the page which may or may not flow onto the next.

Personally I don’t like pictures in books. To quote / paraphrase Sheldon from the “Big Bang Theory” sitcom, the greatest graphics card is the human imagination. That’s where the power of an author lies – in helping to shape a reader’s imagination. Slapping a picture ‘saves’ a thousand words but it makes us lazy.

Admittedly, maybe it’s a different condition with younger readers.

I’d advocate resizing the images to page width, and inserting them at a suitable locations in the text. They’d be larger, clearer, easier to read, and at the right place. But yes – more page turning.

How the above issues translate on an electronic book format I don’t know.

Final thoughts and rating * * * * *

My first instinct was to knock off a star because Peri is no longer the wonderful main character that she was in Making it Home, and instead we have whingey Henry.

Will Max be the main character in the third novel? Personally I hope not. Good child actors are rare, and I’d be cautious that we may have a literary equivalent here with Max. I’d love to see Peri return, but I do concede that it’s probably Max’s ‘turn’.

I was also tempted to knock off a star because of the vagueness of the general story line where we stagger from one tale to another (as the title may suggest!). But I got to thinking that not only is this a novel approach in appealing to younger readers, things do sort of come together at the end and wrap up.

I also really appreciate that layers are being added to the time travel element – not just the the encyclopedia aspect, but in more subtle things like the discussions leading to the idea of predestination.

I’m looking forward to Book 3 which guessing from the Epilogue sounds very promising – Peri trying to the solve the mystery which shrouds the encyclopedia. Perfect!

Review: Making it Home (Suzanne Roche)

Paul

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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of “Stumbling On a Tale” from Word Slinger Publicity to read and provide an honest review. This is it!

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Review: Making it Home (Suzanne Roche)

Making it Home (Suzanne Roche) is a very well written time travel novel aimed at younger readers. The time travel method is interesting and reminiscent of old style computer adventure games with a series of sub-plots which tie together under a general theme. And as you might expect, when the time travel method uses an encyclopedia, you’re bound to learn something during the adventure!

Making it Home by Suzanne Roche is Book 1 of the “Time to Time” series.

Clearly the first thing to be mentioned here is that the time2timetravel HQ heavily endorses that name! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Making it Home with an encyclopedia

Reading and reviewing this book was a new experience for me, and one which admittedly I approached with some trepidation. Making it Home is aimed at middle grade readers (8-12 years old) which is too young for me and too old for my eldest daughter. What would I want with it?

Exactly. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to read it! And besides, we usually live our lives only once and I thought well let’s live life on the edge then. I’ll read a children’s book for myself and then see whether I’ll give it / read it to my daughter later when she’s old enough.

< sarcasm tag > Yes, sometimes I am quite the daredevil! < /sarcasm tag > – and admittedly I was also interested in the games and things included in an appendix at the back of the book! (The recipes I’m going to pass to my wife – her place is not in the kitchen, but considering that I can burn a boiled egg she usually winds up there well before I dare to make that particular expedition! ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

Brief synposis

Peri, Henry and Max find themselves transported from an antique room to a ship full of immigrants sailing to America in 1892. Whilst Henry and Max are troubled and just want to get back home, Peri is enthusiastic about witnessing events in history. They come across a number of key historical figures who have various problems which are resolved with help from the time travelling trio.

First impressions

It shouldn’t be, but I’m finding that reading a children’s book on a commuter train is quite embarrassing. Other travellers will (correctly) judge this book by its cover and reduce my reading age by a few decades. And if they’d care to look into the pages that I’m reading they’d see pictures. Ah well, let them think I’m reading a children’s book in a Dutch train to improve my English then!

A small note then about the pictures – the quality isn’t that great; they are dark and small. And actually, the font size is small too (maybe to reduce page number and cost? ) which may make it harder for a child to read. And if you’re reading to your child, then small text and small dark pictures will render the book pretty much useless other than to use as a script.

But…some of the pictures are useful and add a certain sense of weight to the text. For example, there are pictures of actual historical documents which are featured in the novel, or old photos of bustling streets and of how real children in that time dressed. In a way, they serve as ‘proof’ of some of the extensive research Suzanne must have carried out.

Perhaps it is strange, but I found that I didn’t look at all of the pictures – I forgot! Maybe it’s a good thing that I was engrossed in the text – or was I manipulated in that the pictures help to reduce the amount of text on a page which might be off-putting for a young reader? (Or for me? ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). Indeed, there are some pictures which are hand drawn and don’t seem to serve any real purpose other than give credence to my point above.

Sitting between “additional research” and “text breaker” is an image I particularly liked – an old photo of “The Brooklyn Bridge Heading into Manhattan” (on page 136) as it reminded me of a closing scene in the movie “Gangs of New York” during a fading from the past to the present:

Brooklyn Bridge
Figure of Brooklyn Bridge reproduced with kind permission.
Brooklyn Bridge in The Gangs of New York movie
Brooklyn Bridge as seen in the closing scene of Gangs of New York (Image credit: http://jackhayearts.com/styled-7/files/brooklyn-bridge.jpg)

Writing style

I don’t know how Suzanne does it, and I can’t put my finger on what it actually is, but when I read I’m almost hearing myself reading it to my own kids. The writing style is superb. There’s probably an official term for the tense used but I’d call it a lively cross between past and present.

The main characters are Peri and her two younger step brothers Henry and Max. Thankfully, aside from usual sibling rivalry they get on with each other. Troubles between step-, half- and adopted children are a bore to read. It’s an easy (lazy?) way to insert predictable tension into a book – but more importantly it’s not a good lesson for children. Many of these relationships are successful and go well. Contrast this with ideas pushed by Disney, for example, to the point that my eldest told me she no longer wanted to be a princess because “…princesses have mean step mummies”. Dream killed, ‘Well done’ Disney.

Thankfully that doesn’t happen here! ๐Ÿ™‚

Making it Home is a busy novel in itself and also with facts woven into the prose – but there’s still space found for some character development. Henry is working through his scout badges but showing nervousness when it comes to displaying skills for first aid. Max wants a pet dog but he’s not allowed one. And then there’s the star of the show – Peri.

Peri has an incredible thirst for knowledge. She’s pragmatic, solution orientated and down to business. At the same time she’s kind-hearted and simply draws readers towards her!

She’s the one who gets her idiot brothers into action. She moves them – and the plot – forwards, not in a cold and efficient manner, but in a humanitarian spirit. Actually, she’s the kind of girl who might well tell me off for saying that the pictures and font sizes are too small and difficult for young readers, although that said, I couldn’t quite work out the ages of the children. Maybe Peri is older than the target audience.

Admittedly I’m probably saying this as a proud Dad of 2 daughters, but I’m pleased that the main hero is a heroine! ๐Ÿ™‚

Time travel with an encyclopedia

I might be tempted to say that the travel method is unrealistic, but to be honest I’d be a cretin if I did. This is a children’s book not hard core science fiction, and having 2 young daughters means that I’m predisposed towards keeping magic and fantasy alive for them for as long as I can.

A bunch of keys are put on top of an encyclopedia, and the next thing they know they’re on board a boat heading for New York in 1892. To return to the present (i.e. to “Make it back home“) they need to [showhide type=”pressrelease” more_text=”Spoiler alert! Show time travel method. (%s More Words)” less_text=”Hide time travel method (%s Less Words)” hidden=”yes”] observe and hold each of the keys in their historical setting. [/showhide]

Realistic or not, I thought this was a great idea! It turns out that one of the keys belonged to Annie Moore who was a fellow passenger on the ship heading towards New York. Another key belonged to an Italian family they helped (with a minor Godfather moment when they expressed their gratitude “If we can help you someday…” ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

encylopedia and time travel
The power of books in time travel!

Where does the story line go? Exactly. Peri, Henry and Max don’t know what they need to do to get back home to their own time but there seems to be an underlying theory that they should observe and witness events. Along the way they encounter characters with various problems which they feel compelled to help resolve. This reminded me of the Quantum Leap TV show from the early 90’s, or even like one of those old adventure computer games, finding objects (keys) before progressing to the next level – usually in a different time.

This latter point is a good one – that Making it Home doesn’t obsess on one particular historical moment but introduces the reader to an array of historical periods.

I thought it unusual (or very impressive) that the youngsters could recognise the keys, but this is a minor detail in the greater scheme of things.

I’ve discussed before about the direction that a “time travel novel” takes. Making it Home seems to take on a bit of both the journey and the destination side of time travel. The time travel method is certainly touched on and questioned (by Peri); it’s central to making it [back] home, and there’s also a comment about changing history.

(Actually the children end up being responsible for Roosevelt helping Jacob Riis in cleaning up New York and making conditions better for immigrants. I suppose it could be argued that the past has already happened – even if it includes trips to that past by time travellers, as in The Time Traveller’s Wife).

Anyway. This isn’t the focus of the novel which is really more about witnessing, observing (and interacting…) with events in the past. So it has a strong ‘destination’ base, and certainly it’s this aspect which helps educate the younger reader.

A couple of nice points

I mentioned earlier that the time traveling trio don’t remain in the same time. When they first meet Riis he burns his hand quite severely. There was a nice reminder of this event when they meet him again some yeas later and note that his hand had healed.

In a similar vein, Peri arranges to meet the Italian family that they helped out earlier to call their favour. At this point the younger reader is reminded of how the help was given in the first place – the author clearly understands the needs of her readers!

Personal education

This bit will probably show my honesty (and ignorance): I had no idea who Annie Moore or Jacob Riijs or any of the other characters were. So I maybe I was like a child as I was reading – and now I’ve been educated!

Ending

The only thing I didn’t like about Making it Home is the ending. Actually, I mean the very ending – leading up to the final page was an interesting angle on the encyclopedia which was published after it was put away! I’d loved to have seen that idea developed a bit more, though I concede that it would probably have been too ‘advanced’ for the target audience.

But generally speaking the final chapter was a disappointment. Peri, Max, and Henry return to the present and there are questions if it was all a dream, and then the ‘cliff hanger’ was so lame and cheesy that I cringed when I read it. I suppose I’m going to fall back on what I’ve said a few times already – I’m not the target audience, and maybe young readers need this cheese. I can’t remember!

Rating * * * * *

I’m giving this the full 5 stars because I like the time travel method, the way the (return) method drives the plot forwards, and its appeal to younger readers. The writing style is clear and active and draws the reader into the plot. And a special thumbs up for Peri! ๐Ÿ™‚

Paul

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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of “Making it Home” from Word Slinger Publicity to read and provide an honest review. This is it!

Star ratings:

| 5* Excellent! | 4* Good | 3* OK | 2* Not good | 1* Crud |