Category Archives: historical fiction

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

great and terrible beautyFrom looking at the cover of this book, I assumed it would have been a historical romance novel.  I honestly thought it would have read like The Luxe or Manor of Secrets, and I was hoping for a Downton Abbey fix.  And though there was a touch of romance, my assumption was pretty far off.  Gemma Doyle’s experiences in a London finishing school [in 1895] were historically accurate, and she did experience some romantic entanglements, but the plot was primarily focused on the supernatural forces at play in Gemma’s life.  While part of me wishes I knew about this book when it first came out, part of me is happy that all three books were already published and available as audiobooks so I could listen to them in rapid succession!

Gemma had a fairly uncomplicated life until the day a strange creature attacked her mother in an Indian marketplace.  Rather than be captured by the creature, her mother committed suicide.  Gemma’s father insisted on telling everyone that his wife died of an illness, but Gemma knew the truth and was racked with guilt over the fact that her mother was only in that area of the marketplace because she (Gemma) had run off in a snit.  After witnessing the attack/suicide, Gemma started having visions — and the visions only got worse after she was sent off to Spence Academy.  Trying to make new friends and to succeed in finishing school while also figuring out what was behind the visions proved extremely challenging, but these challenges were no match for Gemma’s pluck and determination.

Happy Reading!

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate‎

One and Only IvanWhen this book won the 2013 Newbery Award, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read it.  It just sounded too depressing.  Luckily, a friend read it and said it was actually funnier than it sounded, albeit sad at times, and that she thought my son would also enjoy it. I decided to get the audiobook because my son and I share 60-90 minutes of audiobook time per day in the summer driving together to my library and his day camp.  (We share a parking lot with the Y!)  This was our first audiobook of the summer, and it was a *HUGE* hit.  So much so that my son was pretty much devastated any time that his sister was in the car and requested that we “waste” any of our time listening to music.

Although Ivan and the other animals were being held captive in less than desirable conditions, their actions and stories they told one another were often funny.  The humor sprinkled throughout the story definitely helped to keep it light.  My son’s favorite new vocabulary word, and the discussion of which he often used to try to convince his sister to listen to the story with us, was me-ball.  You may be asking yourself, “What’s a me-ball?”  Why, it’s a rolled up, dried out ball of poop that gorillas like to throw, of course!  ;-)  He thought that was hilarious, and he loved the loving friendships between the animals.  The best part of the story, in my opinion, was at the end when the author’s note explained that this story was based on the true story of a gorilla named Ivan.  I think it will do a lot to help readers understand that, though the thoughts and specific stories told by the animals in this story were fictional, animals surely want (and deserve) companionship and appropriate living conditions.

Happy Reading!

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

between shades of grayToday’s I Read YA Week post is supposed to be “If Movies Were YA,” so I am posting about a book that I think should be turned into a movie.  Between Shades of Gray is a story that I think should be required reading for all high school students when they study world history, though I think a movie might do a better job of increasing awareness overall.  As I listened to this audiobook, I kept thinking, “This needs to be the next Schindler’s List.  Why is it that everyone talks about the horrors of the Holocaust and nobody ever talks about the Soviet Holodomor?”  I mean, I didn’t even know the term Holodomor (which roughly translates to “death by hunger”) until this book inspired me to do a little research.

I remember briefly covering Stalin and being taught about his “purges”… but I think we pretty much glossed over it on the way to an in-depth study of the Holocaust.  I mean, I definitely didn’t recall that the total death count was right up there with the Holocaust.  It is estimated that somewhere between 3 and 60 million people died during the Holodomor, with many estimates putting the death toll at around 7 million people.  SEVEN MILLION!  People talk about the Holocaust all the time.  They lament the fact that the Nazis killed 6 million Jews and another 5 million people [including Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people, and Gypsies] under Hitler’s rule.  There are numerous Holocaust museums and memorials in addition to a Holocaust Remembrance Day.  But, no one really talks much about what Stalin did.  My Facebook feed doesn’t “blow up” once a year to remind me of what Stalin did.  And that is a crying shame.  Some people may debate the death toll and ask, “Was it genocide?”  But, regardless of the exact number and the terminology you use, there is no debating the fact that millions of people died under Stalin’s regime.

I appreciate the author interview at the end of the audiobook, in which Ruta Sepetys explained her personal connection to the story, and I love that the official website for the book includes resources like a book discussion guide and a video of Ruta Sepetys discussing the novel.  I’m glad that this book has started to shed some more light on the Holodomor , and I can only pray that this light shines brightly, and widely, from here on.

Happy Reading!

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkJust as it took me WAY too long to get around to listening to this audiobook, it has taken me WAY too long to post my review…  Not cool, Chrissie.  Not cool!  (Especially since it won a Printz Honor and that should have been excuse enough to post about it.)  I need to do something about my back log of books to be reviewed, and some of my readers are on February break this week, so I need to get down to business and start pumping out some extra book reviews.  Enjoy!

Eleanor & Park takes place in 1986, so it is technically “historical fiction” to the teens I serve today…  I mean, they weren’t even BORN yet!  (Wow, that makes me feel old!)  Though it was fun to reminisce about big hair, bold makeup, “Walkman” tape players, and phones on a cord, this story was not a fluffy look back on the 80s.  It was a touching story about how one person can make all the difference when the whole world seems to be against you.  About how halting conversations about shared interests, like comic books and music, can open the door to friendship.  And about how a barely-there friendship can blossom and turn into love.  Park’s family is “Leave it to Beaver” perfect, and he is relatively popular at school.  Eleanor’s home life is horrid and the kids at school take great pleasure in bullying her about her clothes, weight, and unruly red hair.  And yet, Park can’t help himself.  He doesn’t care what everyone else thinks about “his” Eleanor.  He only knows he will do whatever it takes to try and make her happy.

To be completely honest, there was only one thing I didn’t like about this book… It ended!  Seriously, though, I *really* hope that the ending was not just a “form your own opinion about what happened” thing but, instead, left it open for a sequel.  A girl can hope, right?!?  ;-)

Happy Reading!

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under FireI absolutely LOVED Code Name Verity, so I had a feeling that I would enjoy this book too.  Enjoy feels like a wrong word to use, though, considering all the terrible things that happen.  The story is narrated by young Rose Justice, an American ATA pilot who got lost, landed in the wrong airfield, and ended up a Nazi prisoner in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  Though there was so much more to the Holocaust than Rose ever could have seen or experienced in her abbreviated stay in the one small portion of that one particular women’s camp, the horrors still added up rather quickly.  I was especially sickened to hear the details behind the medical experiments that were done on the “Ravensbrück Rabbits.”  I think readers who haven’t yet learned about the Nazi doctors and the Nuremburg Trials may find these details especially disturbing, since I found it hard to listen to even though I already knew a lot of what had been done.  Despite the darkness she revealed, though, I found it heartening that Wein managed to shine a spotlight on the friendship, generosity, and hope that helped so many people survive against the odds.

It’s evident that Elizabeth Wein was very thorough in her research, and the author’s note at the end of the story was a lovely added bonus.  I especially liked hearing about how Wein’s stay at European Summer School at the Ravensbrück Memorial site affected her.  (You can read journal entries about this stay on her website — http://www.elizabethwein.com/my-visit-ravensbr%C3%BCck-august-2012.)  There were only two things that I honestly didn’t like about listening to the audiobook.  One was that I had to pull over to cry a couple of times.  (That happened with Code Name Verity, too, so I came into the story expecting it would happen again.)  The other was when the narrator jarred me out of the story by saying “skuh-lee-tle” as she described the survivors of the concentration camps.  I re-played that sentence probably 4 or 5 times before I realized she had mispronounced the word “skeletal”…  All of Wein’s tireless research to get the story right, and everyone involved in the audiobook production missed this egregious mispronunciation — and not just once, but twice!  /sigh

Happy Reading!

Manor of Secrets by Katherine Longshore [ARC]

manor of secretsI was very resistant to use an e-reader for quite some time, but recently got a Kindle Fire so my nearly-4-year-old daughter could have a tablet to play with while her older brother plays video games.  (She doesn’t quite get how to play yet and always gets frustrated.  But, I digress.)  The main point is that I still didn’t really anticipate that I would actually use my tablet to read ebooks.  Until, that is, my director told me the first chapter of Cress was available on NetGalley!  (For those of you who don’t know, Cress is book three in the Lunar Chronicles — which began with Cinder and Scarlett.)  It was amazing… but it was only one chapter. So, I decided to see what else was available.  As I was browsing through titles to request, I found this book.  Talk about kismet!  I was anxiously awaiting the new season of Downton Abbey and just *knew* this would give me a quick fix.  I was not disappointed!

Charlotte Edmonds is expected to be a perfect lady.  After all, how will she land the perfect husband if she doesn’t dress, speak, and act exactly as society expects?  She seems to be a constant disappointment to her mother, Lady Diana, who has her sights set on a marriage proposal from Lord Andrew Broadhurst before Charlotte even makes it to her first season.  Even though her best friend, Fran, seems content to play by the rules and to hope for a marriage proposal from a suitable man, Charlotte longs for more — for fun, spontaneity, and a career as a writer.  When Charlotte spies a scullery maid, Janie, sneaking away from a garden party to wade in the lake on a hot summer day, she decides to try it too.  Thus begins an unlikely friendship between the girls.  Secret rendezvous and rule-breaking abound as Charlotte and Janie try to find a way to live the lives they want instead of the lives they’ve been pigeonholed into, and all of The Manor’s secrets come spilling out.  The ending is tidy enough, but just begs for a sequel.

Happy Reading!

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Water CastleI know I am always telling people not to judge books by their covers, but I am certainly guilty of this infraction from time to time.  Somehow, I saw the cover of this book and thought it would be more fantastic than it was.  Maybe it was the banner that says “Believe in the unbelievable…”  Maybe it was the castle in the background.  But, somehow, I had my mind set that those kids would be involved in mystical time travel.  Yeah…  Not so much!  Although, there were chapters that took readers back to the early 1900s to discover the history of the Water Castle and the ancestors of the main characters, those main characters most definitely did not travel through time themselves.  And that was OK.  Even though this story wasn’t what I thought it would be, I still thought it was extremely cool.

Ephraim Appledore-Smith’s family relocated to Crystal Springs, Maine, after his father had a stroke.  Though his mother had inherited the house quite some time ago, Ephraim and his siblings had never been there before.  His mother decided to move to Crystal Springs because she had hopes that a specialist who lived in that area would be able to help her husband with his recovery.  After their arrival, though, Ephraim became obsessed with the possibility that the local water had special, mystical properties and that he could use it to cure his father.  After all, that was how the “Water Castle” came to be in the first place; his ancestor, Orlando Appledore, built the house because he was convinced that the Fountain of Youth was in Crystal Springs.  After floundering to find his niche in the new town/school, Ephraim became part of an unlikely trio — with Mallory Green, whose family has always worked as caretakers of the Appledore property, and Will Wylie, whose family has long feuded with the Appledores.  First brought together by a polar explorers research project, the three banded together with a determination to find the fountain of youth themselves.

Happy Reading!

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the EasyTo say that Josie Moraine has a very unusual life would be an understatement and a half!  Though she is only in high school, she already lives on her own and works two jobs — as a clerk at a local bookstore and as a maid of sorts for the brothel where her mother works.  That’s right…  Josie’s mother is a prostitute.  Not to mention a cold, calculating, unloving woman who only ever seems to think of herself.  And, as if that isn’t bad enough, Josie’s mother also happens to be in love with an abusive gangster-type.  So, when her mom disappears from the French Quarter the very same morning that a man turns up dead, Josie isn’t sure what to do or what to believe.  She has never wanted anything so much as a chance to get out of the “Big Easy” and to get a good education, but her mother and her mother’s foolishness always seem to get in the way.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this story was how the entire cast of characters was so well fleshed-out.  I get annoyed when authors skimp on developing the supporting characters, but Sepetys did not disappoint!  My favorite was Willie — the brothel madam who knew Josie was bound for bigger and better things, regardless of the fact that many people assumed/hoped she would simply follow in her mother’s footsteps.  I loved that Willie did her best to support Josie and to encourage her to want more from life instead of being upset that Josie didn’t want to join the [ahem] family business.  If you like historical fiction and/or mysteries, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Happy Reading!

The Paganini Curse by Giselle M. Stancic

paginini curseIt wasn’t exactly easy to be an independent teenage girl in New York City in 1911, but Aurora Lewis wouldn’t let societal norms dictate her life.  She refused to give up on her musical studies to attend a “finishing school” because she was determined to play violin in a symphony someday.  When she arrived at violin lessons one Saturday morning, though, she found the studio a mess and the window open — despite the winter chill in the air.  Looking down from the window, she found her teacher dead on the sidewalk… and was accused, by street hooligans, of having pushed him!  Although the police cleared her when they deemed his death an accident, Aurora wasn’t satisfied with that result and decided that she and her friends would have to solve this murder themselves.  This book was well written, fast-paced, and full of interesting musical and historical facts.  I bet even reluctant readers would get lured in to this story!

Happy Reading!

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

war horseI hate to admit that it took me so many years to actually read this book.  It would have made sense for me to read it after hearing rave reviews from kids and adults alike.  It would have made sense to read it when it was turned into a Broadway hit, or later when it was turned into a hit movie… but what finally made me get the audiobook and listen to this story was the opportunity to meet Michael Morpurgo when he presented the 2013 Arbuthnot Lecture.  Since I am the Vice President of the Youth Services Section (YSS) of NYLA, I had the opportunity to sit in the VIP section of the chapel and then to sit at the head table with Michael during the YSS Spring Conference Luncheon last week — I *had* to read this book if I wasn’t going to feel like an idiot!  Needless to say, I loved the story AND the lecture.  And, fortunately, I can tell you that Michael Morpurgo is a very friendly, down-to-Earth man who had no problem posing for a picture with a geeked-out Tween & Teen Librarian.  ;-)

Happy Reading!

michael morpurgo