Tag Archive | Historical Fiction

Book Review: Secret Letters

Secret LettersSecret Letters by Leah Scheier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I knew that Adelaide would wish to visit the detective and present her case to him as soon as possible. And I would be there by her side, of course, to support her as she told her story. But I had my own reason for visiting Mr. Holmes and my own story to tell him, and so I had to reach him before she did — and I had to speak to him alone.

Synopsis:
Since losing both parents to typhoid fever four years ago, Dora Joyce has lived with her Aunt Ina, a very proper Victorian matron determined to mold the inquisitive, headstrong girl in her own image. During the day, Dora has been laced into corsets and taught to waltz, but in the evenings, she’s been studying the adventures of the Great Detective chronicled in the Strand magazine. Following his methods, she has sharpened her observational skills. She has good reason to believe she might be able to emulate Mr Holmes better than most: a deathbed confession from her mother that the detective is Dora’s father. Now, with her cousin facing a blackmailer threatening to destroy her marriage, Dora finally has a reason to seek out the detective in London. The day she arrives at his Baker Street address, however, she is stunned by the headline screaming from the newspapers: Sherlock Holmes Killed in Switzerland.

The detective she and her cousin finally do consult leaves Dora distinctly unimpressed, but his young assistant sparks her interest. His name is Peter Cartwright, he knew Sherlock Holmes, and he seems to find her at least a little interesting, as well. Dora decides that she – with Peter’s help – will go undercover to solve the mystery herself, as any child of the Great Detective would.

Review:
Scheier’s debut novel is a Sherlockian pastiche with a twist of romance in with the mystery. Several mysteries, actually, since the title might refer to a number of letters and a number of secrets, all of which tangle around each other, catching the spirited teenage heroine in the middle. Dora chafes at the restrictions society – by way of her Aunt – places on her, and she longs to be accepted for the person she really is. She finds a true peer in Peter, who looks beyond surfaces just as she does. Class distinctions of the period are explored through Dora’s disguise as a house servant at Hartfield Hall, a role she manages to fill surprisingly (if perhaps a tad unbelievably) well, while she ferrets out clues.

The first few chapters have to introduce a lot of material about the characters and the setting, but the action picks up pace after that. Plots and sub-plots intertwine as ulterior motives abound above and below stairs at Hartfield. Sly nods to the original stories pop up here and there – little Easter eggs for those familiar with the Canon. This is a satisfying blend of mystery, adventure, and romance, with just enough comedic moments (usually resulting from Dora being a bit too clever for her own good) to balance the more serious elements.

Recommend to:
Historical fiction and mystery fans, ages 12 and up.

Twitter-Style Review: Historical mystery with a touch of romance, perfect for the budding Holmesian.

Source: Checked out from my public library.

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Review: The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

 The Fire Horse Girl
The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jade Moon dreams of leaving home, of escaping the tiny Chinese village where she lives alone with her father, her grandfather, and their faithful servant, surrounded by gossiping “Aunties” who are all too familiar with her many faults: clumsiness, stubbornness, and – perhaps worst of all – a longing for independence. All she can see is a future married off to a local brickmaker, but that changes with the arrival of a stranger. Sterling Promise arrives from Hong Kong with news that an uncle Jade Moon never knew she had passed away recently, leaving behind papers that could allow Sterling Promise and Jade Moon’s father into the wide open promised land of America. If she could just get to that new country, Jade Moon thinks, what possibilities could await her?

The United States of 1923, though, is wary of admitting more Chinese immigrants, and Jade Moon’s long sea journey is followed by detainment on Angel Island. Getting to San Francisco will take cunning and bravery, and surviving there will be even harder.

Fire Horse Girl is a complicated piece of historical fiction. Honeyman explores the life of a girl in early 20th-century China, the San Francisco of the 1920s, and the Chinese immigrant experience on Angel Island, a bit of American history little known outside the West coast. The stories aren’t so much woven together as tacked onto one another, which may be why the pace drags in places. Jade Moon is a likeable character because of – rather than despite – her prickliness, as the independent nature that seems to offend her contemporaries has strong appeal for twenty-first century readers. Story-telling is a theme that recurs throughout her narration, and she is determined to tell her own story.

A lengthy author’s note tells how Honeyman came to the tale and provides further information on the historical events, people, and places that inspired her, as well as a paragraph on Chinese astrology. “The next Fire Horse girls,” she notes, “will be born in 2026.”

Recommend to: teens who like strong heroines and a mixture of action and history with a dash of romance.

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley

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Book Review: Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

The Barovier family furnace / has molded glass on Murano
for nearly two hundred years, since 1291 / when the Venetian government
required that all furnaces move / to my island home.

Sisters of Glass

Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
When Maria was just an infant, her father declared that she would one day marry a nobleman, even though such a fate should rightfully belong to her elegant older sister, Giovanna. Maria would much rather learn to blow glass in the family fornicas, but that work is for men only, even after her father’s death and the onset of financial trouble for the family. Trapped by tradition at 15, can Maria simply ignore her feelings forever, especially the feelings she has for the orphaned young glassblower who has joined the family business?

Review:
Fifteenth-century Murano provides the historical backdrop for this story of two sisters caught between what they wish they could do and what they feel they must do. Hemphill’s prose poems are full of fine details, but they never capture the intensity of emotion Maria ought to feel. Rather than bringing the reader closer to Maria – as in Caroline Starr Rose’s May B. – the terse narrative leaves the reader distant from the action. The form works in May B. precisely because May is alone for most of the novel; the poems read as her thoughts rather than as formal writing, particularly because the reader knows May isn’t actually writing anything down. Maria, on the other hand, is surrounded by people, and her interactions with them lose immediacy as conversations are rendered
in short bursts
rather than as
meaningful discussion.

Despite this weakness, the unusual setting, the timeless themes of sibling rivalry and familial duty, and the star-crossed romance (with its slightly-too-convenient conclusion) are sure to appeal to more than a few tweens and teens looking for something light and lovely.

On shelves March 27, 2012.

Final Word:
A light and lovely novel-in-verse for t(w)een fans of historical romance.

Source:
E-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

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Book Review: Dangerous Waters by Gregory Mone

The whole city had come out to watch Titanic and the strong, heavy smell of coal filled the air. After a few breaths, gritty black dust coated his tongue. The taste of progress, as Mr. Joyce called it.

 

Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on the Titanic by Gregory Mone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
April, 1912: The RMS Titanic sets sail for her maiden voyage with more than 2000 people aboard. Among the passengers on the “Queen of the Sea”: a wealthy book collector with a rare and valuable volume, a cunning thief desperate for money, and a young steward looking for a chance to be a part of something great.

After his father died, Patrick Waters left school and went to work in a Belfast pub. His widowed mother is determined to make him a practical working man like his older brother, not a dreamer like his late father. At age twelve, Patrick hopes to associate himself with greatness. His brother is about to embark on his ninth trip across the Atlantic, this time shoveling coal into the boilers of Titanic. When an unexpected opportunity on the ship arises, he wastes no time getting himself aboard. To his surprise, instead of shoveling coal, he is assigned to wait on Harry Elkins Widener, a book-lover whose latest acquisition might be worth much more than either of them can imagine. There is someone on board who thinks he does know, though, and he will stop at nothing to get the book for himself. There is danger at every turn as the ship itself heads for disaster.

 

Review:
With the centennial of the shipwreck approaching in April of 2012, new Titanic books are hitting the shelves. It is one of those topics (like Amelia Earhart’s disappearance or dinosaurs) that kids ask about again and again, endlessly fascinated. In this fictional take for middle grade readers, Mone skillfully blends real-life historical figures with his own characters. An Author’s Note at the end explains that Harry Widener really was a book collector who perished on board the ship, while young Patrick and the other main characters are the inventions of the author.

From the taste of coal dust to the color of a partially-cleaned spittoon, the narrative is packed with rich sensory details, bringing the sights and sounds and smells of the scenes to life. Mone uses playful language in his descriptions; in the first chapter, he says of the thief Berryman that “the local baker refused to loan him so much as a roll.” Quick-paced action keeps the pages turning as events come to their inevitable conclusion.

In addition to the drama of the collision, Mone intrigues readers with a mystery that is just a little bit reminiscent of Dan Brown. The perspective shifts between sweet Patrick, who can’t help but follow his own sharp eyes and ears, and the thieves after something they think will bring them untold riches, if only they can decipher a coded message within. The reader, of course, knows more than any single character, and hints are offered about the secret message before its meaning is finally revealed.

On shelves March 13, 2012 (just in time for the anniversary).

 

Final Word:
An original mystery offers a fresh take on a popular historical event for middle grade readers.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley provided by the publisher by request

 

 

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Book Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

The afternoon my parents died I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
by emily m. danforth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
In the summer of 1989, twelve-year-old Cameron Post kissed her best friend, Irene. The next day, her parents died in a car accident. For Cameron, the two events would be forever linked, not that she could explain that to her born-again Aunt Ruth, who moves into Cameron’s house in Miles City, Montana to become her guardian. Cam knows enough not to talk about her attraction to other girls, let alone how she spends her time with them in the secrecy of haylofts and under the dock at the lake. But during the summer after her first year of high school, just when it seems that the girl she has fallen for might become more than a friend, her aunt finds out. Cam is packed off to God’s Promise, a “Christian School & Center for Healing” for an indeterminate stay. While the staff there tries to help her “break free from the bonds of sexual sin and confusion”, Cam realizes she risks losing herself before even finding out who that really is.

 

Review:
This is a beautifully written book. Danforth has the sort of polished style I expect from graduates of MFA Fiction programs (and she does hold an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana, along with a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln). This is both a blessing and a curse, because it produces a feeling of distance between the reader and the narrator, despite the first-person voice, and between the narrator and the events. Maybe because Cam is clearly telling her story from some point in the future, it lacks immediacy.

Then, there is the setting. The rich description and attention to detail bring Miles City into clear focus, engaging all the senses. The location isn’t the only aspect of the setting, though. Equally important is the time period. The book is set two decades ago, when a teenager like Cam had to depend on letters through the postal service, access to the family phone, and the availability of movies for rent to pop into her VCR. Her world is limited by the boundaries of her small town and the people who live in it. The realistic portrayal of both the place and the time add to the feeling of distance from the events. It is all too easy to read this book and think, “Oh, but that was 20 years ago. That wouldn’t happen now.” But it could and it does, as Danforth reports in an author’s note at the front of the book. (At least, at the front of the Advance Reader Copy; I don’t know if it will appear in the final version.)

Cameron comes to terms with the wrong done to her by recognizing that these are deeply held convictions of people who truly believe they are working in her best interest, a realization that would seem to come with the perspective of time passed, and she refuses to outright condemn the sort of program that God’s Promise represents. Instead, she allows the reader to live through her experience, letting him form an opinion based on life on the inside of the program, the side its supporters rarely (if ever) really see.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an expertly crafted work, a fine example of Literary Fiction that happens to feature a lesbian teenager as its protagonist. And that is a wonderful thing, a fantastic thing. I would love to see more literary fiction with queer characters. After all, must a protagonist be a straight white male for the work to be one that “explores universal themes of truths and/or humanity in general” or, perhaps more significantly, “broadens the reader’s impressions of the human experience”?

I would also love to see more lesbian YA romance.

When it comes to this book, my negative feelings aren’t really about the book at all. They are about the marketing of this book as a teen title, when, really, it feels like an adult novel featuring a teen protagonist. The book itself is lovely. I worry, though, that it will have trouble finding readers who will enjoy the style enough to finish the story and reach the absolutely perfect ending.

On shelves February 7 2012.

 

Final Word:
An expertly crafted literary coming-of-age tale set in Big Sky country.

 

Source:
ARC provided by the publisher at ALA Midwinter 2012.

 

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Book Review: The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

“Once upon a time…”

If I could get away with it, that’s how I’d begin every essay I write.

Those are the four best words to use when you start telling about yourself because anything that begins that way always, always finishes with another four words, “… they lived happily everafter.”

 

The Mighty Miss Malone

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
Deza’s family firmly believes that they “are a family on a journey to a place called wonderful”, but times are hard. The year is 1936, and in Gary, Indiana, there are few jobs to be had, and even fewer for black men. After her father sets out for his mother’s home in Michigan to look for work, things go from bad to worse. Deza, her brother, Jimmie, and their mother head toward Flint after him, but they end up in a Hooverville outside the city. Jimmie’s talent for singing offers him a way out, while Mother and Deza find a new home and keep hoping to bring the family back together.

 

Review:
I came to this book without having read Bud, Not Buddy (I know, I know. Bad Librarian!), where Deza Malone first appears. In a note to the reader at the beginning of the book, Curtis explains that one of his prompts to write the story was the question he was asked at a visit to a Detroit mother daughter book club: “… what we’d really like to know is what business that little girl in the Hooverville had kissing a stranger like Bud Caldwell the way she did.” In The Mighty Miss Malone, Deza tells her version of that night, along with events before and after. Despite the reservations about writing from a girl’s perspective that he mentions, Curtis does an admirable job bringing Deza to life. Deza is, of course, a born storyteller, and her personality shines through in her strong voice. Her story takes sharp twists and turns; just as I would settle in comfortably, a chapter would end with a sentence like, “I walked upstairs and got in bed to finish my last good night of sleep for a long, long time.” Still, her irrepressible spirit kept me going, believing, just as she does, that things will work out all right.

Deza refuses to give in to self-pity. Her life is what it is, and Curtis uses this to masterfully set the scene. Important details about the hardships faced by the Malones and the families around them are given freely and naturally, without the sort of extra explanation for modern readers that sometimes crops up to thoroughly destroy the mood in historical fiction. This title is getting some Newbery buzz already, and for good reason.

On shelves January 10, 2012.

 

Final Word:
Spirited storyteller Deza tells her own tale of hope and hardship in this companion to Newbery winner, Bud, Not Buddy.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

 

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Book Review: Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

When Mama told Beverly that Master Jefferson was his father, she called it a secret everybody knew.

 

Jefferson's Sons

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Synopsis:
William Beverly Hemings is seven years old when his mother tells him an important secret. Though he is black and a slave now, when he turns 21, he will be free… and white. He, his two younger brothers, and their sister are treated differently from the other slaves at Monticello, but they must never speak of why. As Beverly, then his little brother Madison, and finally their friend Peter Fossett grow up, they each must find their own answers to one big question: Can a man be great and still participate in evil?

 

Review:
The idea that the men who wrote that “all men are created equal” and staked their lives on the formation of a land of freedom owned slaves is a tough one for grown-ups to reconcile, let alone kids. Bradley gives a nuanced look at the lives of two slave families (the Hemingses and the Fossetts) at Monticello as their children puzzle out what it means for one of the fathers of a free country to also be the father of slaves. Its length and its thought-provoking content make it a book for older kids; my library has it cataloged as YA, though I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to an interested fifth-grader. Bradley gets a tiny bit didactic sometimes, but never so strongly that it really distracts from the story. An afterword shares the known facts about the lives of the Hemings family and offers suggestions for further reading.

 

Final Word:
Solid historical fiction offering a clear window into a murky time.

 

Source:
Checked out from my public library.

 

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Book Review: Second Fiddle by Roseanne Parry

If we had known it would eventually involve the KGB, the French National Police, and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, we would have left that body in the river and called the Polizei like any normal German citizen; but we were Americans and addicted to solving other people’s problems, so naturally, we got involved.


Second Fiddle
Second Fiddle by Rosanne Parry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
 

Synopsis:
Berlin in 1990: a city in transition. The Wall has just come down, people have fled from East Berlin in search of better lives, and the Soviet Army is facing some serious problems of its own. For American Army-brat Jody and her best friends, Giselle and Vivian, Berlin is also home. For a while, at least. Jody’s three-year stay is about to come to an end with her family’s upcoming move to Texas, while Giselle’s family is headed to California. The girls are in the final days of preparing for one last competition as a string trio – in Paris! – when their teacher tells them he cannot take them after all. On their way home from receiving that disappointing news, the girls save a drowning Estonian soldier, beaten and thrown off a bridge by officers of his own Soviet Army. He needs to escape Berlin before the Russians find him. The girls need a chaperon to Paris before their parents find out their teacher canceled. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Review:
In Parry’s second book for young readers, she takes us back to a time that seems too recent to really be called historical fiction, but it is. She sketches the reality of teens of the time – no cell phones, no e-mail – with specific details without waxing overly nostalgic (an easy trap when writing historical fiction set in your own lifetime). For today’s tweens, the days of the Soviet Union are ancient history! The story is told through Jody’s eyes, but all three girls are strong characters. Their bond, and the way it sustains them through thick and thin, forms the core of the novel. Parry keeps their madcap antics in Paris just this side of unbelievable, giving both a thrilling adventure tale and a sweet story of friendship, loyalty, and discovering one’s own strength.

 

Final Word:
Set in the waning days of the Cold War, this is a fine adventure story with a warm heart.

 

Source:
Checked out from my public library.

 

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Book Review: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

I watch a bird balance
on a blade of grass
bent low toward earth
to find a meal.
All creatures must work for their keep.

May B.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
 

Synopsis:
Life on the Kansas prairie frontier is tough, and 12-year-old Mavis Betterly – May B. – knows it. A learning disability makes school especially challenging, but she is determined to do well, hoping to become a teacher herself one day. Instead of going to school this winter, though, May is headed to a stranger’s homestead 15 miles away. She will help his wife, newly arrived from the East, with the chores, earning a little money to help her own parents as well. “Just until Christmas,” they tell her. Just as May begins to settle in at the Oblingers’ sod house, both adults head into town, and they don’t come back. Trapped by a blizzard, May faces the brutal winter outside while confronting her own haunting memories inside. It will take all her toughness to make it home again

 

Review:
Novels in verse are a tricky thing. As a reader, I always ask what the verse form adds to the story that the author couldn’t have accomplished with prose. In May B., the short, spare poems work. They let the reader straight into May’s thoughts, creating vivid images of life on the frontier. May is a frontier girl, plain-spoken and hard-working, but she is also just twelve years old. One of my favorite passages captures her petulant voice as the gravity of her situation becomes apparent:

I am going to stay here,
wrapped in these quilts,
let the fire die,
and freeze to death
or maybe starve,
whichever comes first.
Then Pa will be sorry
for sending me here.
Was it worth
those few dollars
to find
you daughter dead?

She knows she has to get down to the business of saving herself, but what adolescent (or grown-up, for that matter) could resist having a good wallow in self-pity first?

May is a sharp observer, and the details she notices about the other characters bring them to life while keeping the focus squarely on her. Rose evokes May’s physical and emotional struggles with simple language and poetic rhythm that keep the reader in her world until the very end. A striking debut.

On shelves January 10, 2012.

 

Final Word
Sharp writing, engaging characters, and a thrilling survival story – what’s not to love?
Source:

e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

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Book Review: Taking Off by Jenny Moss

On January 28th, 1986, the day after my 10th birthday, I was just one of millions of kids waiting to see the very first “Teacher in Space” broadcast from the shuttle Challenger. Some of the classrooms (though not mine) had televisions at the ready. The launch had been repeatedly delayed, and we didn’t know when it would finally happen.

That morning, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker: teachers in the classrooms with TVs should not turn them on. What was not announced, left to our families to explain at home, was that the launch had ended disastrously due to, in the words of public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt, “a major malfunction.”

Jenny Moss was a NASA engineer at the time, involved in the training of Challenger crew members Judith Resnick and Ellison Onizuka. In Taking Off, she evokes the atmosphere of late-1985 Houston, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl, an aspiring poet in a town full of Science Geeks.

Taking OffTaking Off by Jenny Moss

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No one labels me as an eccentric, but that’s because they don’t know what’s in my heart.

In the late Fall of 1985, Annie is a high school senior in suburban Houston, and her comfortable life is on the verge of being completely upended. Her best friend wants her to go to college in Austin with her. Her boyfriend of two years wants her to stay in town with him. Her mother wants her to be friendlier to Donald, her mother’s boyfriend. Annie isn’t sure what she wants, except that she wants to be a poet, an idea she keeps secret from the engineers and space program geeks who populate most of her town. Then, she meets Christa McAuliffe at a dinner party. She can’t help but feel inspired by the famous “Teachernaut”, so inspired that she decides to take a road trip to Florida to see the Challenger launch. And maybe, while she’s at it, figure out where she wants to go.

This is a quiet novel, with a lot of introspection. As it opens, Annie is caught between conflicting impulses and would really rather hole up at home than deal with making decisions about her future. While it is a situation many teens will recognize, the story lacks action, making it less than compelling. Even the romantic subplot, with its potential for angst and drama, ends up feeling underwhelming. The book might find its audience with adults who remember the Challenger disaster and will appreciate former NASA engineer Moss’s attention to detail.

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