Category Archives: historical fiction

The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

the game of love and deathAt first glance, Henry and Flora would not seem extraordinary to most people.  Love and Death, nevertheless, saw great potential within them.  For centuries, Love and Death had been playing a game.  Each would pick a human player, and then they would roll the dice to determine the end date of the game.  There were limitations to how much, and in which ways, they could interfere — but they certainly acted to influence the situation so that they might win the bet.  Regardless of how much love there seemed to be between the people, Death always prevailed. Though previous games have included such famed, star-crossed pairs as Anthony and Cleopatra or Paris and Helen of Troy, Love seems to think that Henry and Flora will finally beat the odds.

There were a few things about this story that made it particularly compelling.  First, that Love and Death were beings who seemed to be almost fighting an attraction between themselves.  They often took human form, and it struck me that this author chose to have Love as a man and Death as a woman.  Since men tend to be associated more with aggression and women tend to be associated more with nurturing, it was very interesting to see this dynamic reversed.  It was also rather amazing to see how well the author managed to weave together themes of socioeconomic discrepencies, race relations, gender norms, and GLBTQ struggles as they related to Americans in the 1930s.  If you enjoy historical fiction with a touch of magical realism and a healthy heaping of romance, look no further.

Happy Reading!

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

fountains of silenceAlthough this book was only published about a month ago, it has already received a Listening Library Earphone Award for the full cast audio recording.  And I am going to assume that there are all sort of awards that just haven’t been given yet, because Sepetys has received over 40 awards for her other books, like Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea.  Set in Madrid in 1957, this books tells the true story of Spain under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. After the Spanish Civil War, many Spainiards were living in both poverty and fear, especially those whose family members had been outed as Republicans, aka Reds.  The American tourists either turned a blind eye or simply didn’t even notice the disparity between their lavish lifestyle, full of parties and shopping sprees, and the abject poverty and subsistence living of the locals.

Daniel Matheson traveled to Spain with his parents; his father, who was a Texas oil tycoon hoping to make a deal with Franco, and his mother, who had grown up in Spain and wanted to visit her home country. Daniel, a photographer and aspiring photojournalist, hoped he might use this opportunity to get some photos that could help with a contest entry. Though his mother supported his love of photography, his father refused to pay for journalism school and insisted that he go to business school instead.  If he won this contest, though, he could win enough money to attend j school without his father’s help. Little did Daniel know the opportunities he would find…

Once again, Sepetys has taken a time and place in history that oft goes neglected in US history classes and written a novel that will stick with readers far better than any simple lesson. Interspersed with vintage media reports, oral history commentary, photos, and more, this book is sure to both educate and entertain.

Happy Reading!

Girls Like Us by Randi Pink

girls like usTeen pregnancy is not anything new.  Things have changed quite a bit, though, since teen moms now don’t tend to get shipped off to finish their pregnancy and give birth in secret.  Can you even imagine being uprooted from your home, taken away from your support system of friends and family, and then being expected to give birth and give away your child only to pretend it had never happened in the first place?  This story takes place in 1972 and features four different teen girls dealing with unplanned pregnancies before Roe v Wade.  Izella and her older sister Ola are trying to hide Ola’s pregnancy from their mother when Izella comes up with a plan to “take care of things.”  Their young neighbor, Missippi, is also pregnant and is sent off to Chicago to be cared for by a woman who shelters pregnant girls and helps them when the time comes to give birth.  While in Chicago, she meets several other pregnant girls including Susan, the daughter of a prominent anti-choice senator. Their stories are all heartbreaking, though in very different ways. And, though I don’t like to give spoilers, I don’t think it will spoil too much to admit that there are bits of tragedy thrown into the mix.  Definitely not a “feel good” story, but a very important story to be told. Add this one to your #TBR list for when it comes out at the end of the month.

Happy Reading!

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

The book starts off with Melody’s coming out ceremony, but it doesn’t just follow her story.  It goes back and forth between the past and present, and also alternates between characters so readers can grasp the full magnitude of what Melody’s coming out truly means to her family.  Her birth, after all, was what joined two very different families together.  Her mother, Iris, was fairly well-to-do and was supposed to have her own coming out, but fell from grace when she got pregnant with Melody.  Iris was forced out of her Catholic high school and ended up going away to college and leaving her child behind with her parents to try to get her life back on track.  Melody’s father, Aubrey, on the other hand, was being raised by a poor single mother who was doing her best to keep him from relying on “the system” that she was embarrased and ashamed to need herself.  It was amazing, really, to see how those two families had gotten to the point in history where their stories merged and astounding to see what all of these characters had overcome in their personal experiences.

Exploring themes of racial identity, racism, class, status, familial love, romantic love, sexual identity, and more would be a tall order for most writers, but Jacqueline Woodson is such an amazing writer that it came together without feeling the slightest bit contrived.  I am continually impressed by the way Woodson can write compelling stories that increase a reader’s understanding of history and their empathy for the struggles of their fellow humans and manages to do so with absolutely beautiful prose.  If this book isn’t considered a “classic” in years to come, I will be shocked.

Happy Reading!

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

36912588For many people, the realities faced by Syrian refugees are practically beyond comprehension.  It’s not easy to imagine the horror one would face if their neighborhood became a war zone.  It’s hard to imagine having to make a decision about whether to flee your home country when either choice (staying or going) could lead to major suffering and even death. I find that reading about the Syrian refugees is difficult because it requires my brain to translate the words into images that are hard to conjure… and therein lies the power of the graphic novel format for this story. Readers don’t have to try to imagine what a bombed out neighborhood would look like; we don’t have to try to imagine hoards of people attempting to cross unsafe waters in dangerously overcrowded rafts. We can see with our own eyes what it might look like to be in those harrowing situations. This graphic novel is to the Syrian refugee crisis what Maus was to the Jews living in ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust. I sincerely hope that a lot of schools will use this book in teaching current events so that young people can fully grasp the situation and better understand the motivations of and problems faced by the refugees who hope to resettle across Europe and in The United States of America.

Happy Reading!

Lovely War by Julie Berry

40594453In this historical romance, set during WWI and WWII, there’s a bit of an extra twist.  Both of the couples we meet — Hazel and James & Aubrey and Colette — were brought together by more than fate or mere chance. They were brought together by the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, herself.  How do we know this?  Because she helps to narrate the story!  After her husband, Hephaestus, catches her in a secret rendezvous with Ares, she tries to talk her way out of trouble. And as Hephaestus sits in judgement, Aphrodite calls upon other Greek gods to act as witnesses and to help her tell the story — which aims to explain how Love and War are eternally drawn to one another.

Berry clearly did her research before setting out to write this story.  Not only did she manage to seamlessly intertwine the stories of these four young lovers, but references to real people and places were peppered throughout.  Readers who don’t know a ton about WWI and WWII even stand to learn quite a bit about the ways society affected war (e.g. segregation within the US troops) and the ways WWI losses and victories set the stage for WWII (e.g. WWI heroes, like Charles de Gaulle, who later played bigger parts in WWII). Though tales of war will always include sadness and grief, there was plenty of romance and humor to help balance things out. Readers who enjoyed Code Name Verity should definitely pick this book up when it comes out  on March 5th.

Happy Reading!

Refugee by Alan Gratz

refugeeWhat would you do if your home country was no longer safe?  If you were persecuted for your religion, if a lack of food in your country was causing violent riots, or if your neighborhood was being bombed?  If you had to take only what you could carry and try to escape to a place you had never even visited before?  If you had to risk death for the possibility of a better life?  The scenarios faced by our narrators varied because they grew up in vastly different times and places — Josef in Nazi Germany (1930s) , Isabel in Communist Cuba (1990s), and Mahmoud in modern-day Syria (2015) — but all three of these children became refugees when their families felt that escaping their homeland was the only tenable solution.

I think that books like this are extremely important, since they often provide a better perspective than news stories.  News stories about refugees tend to focus on the current situation, such as which countries might take them in, but not so much about how the situation escalated to the point that they sought refuge in the first place.  One of the moments that really struck me in this story was when Mahmoud’s family was talking about relocating to Germany.  Someone commented that it would be cold there and his father responded by singing, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”  The inclusion of a song from such a popular/recent movie as Frozen will surely help readers to recognize that refugees are not only people from some time “before.”  By humanizing these narrators and showing how they were normal kids up until they had to run for their lives.  I can only hope that this story will help to cultivate better empathy for the plight of refugees and the realization that “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

Happy Reading!

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

WintersongLiesl remembers when she used to go into the woods as a child and play with Der Erlkönig [the Goblin King].  She found it strange that he kept asking for her hand in marriage since she was only a child, but he persisted.  As she grew older, she stopped traveling so often into the woods, but she still heard tales of the Der Erlkönig — especially from her grandmother, Constanze, who urged Liesl to respect the “old laws” so that she could keep herself safe as the Der Erlkönig searched for his eternal bride.  Though Leisl was primarily occupied with helping to run her family’s inn, she preferred to spend her spare time composing and playing music with her brother, Josef.  She didn’t give much thought to Der Erlkönig and his search for an eternal bride, but then her sister, Käthe, was kidnapped by goblins.  Suddenly, Leisl’s entire world was turned upside down — because Der Erlkönig had not only taken her sister away, but he had also clouded the minds of everyone around her.

As she struggled to get out of the house and search for her missing sister, the people around her, who didn’t know who this “Käthe” was, seemed to think Leisl had a mental breakdown.  Only Constanze could see through this illusion, but her family thought of *her* as an old woman who had lost her own grip on reality long ago.  Fortunately, she conspired to sneak Leisl out of the house so that she could find Der Erlkönig and negotiate for her sister’s safe return.  Though this book was set at the turn of the 19th century and Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest was set in modern times, it somehow made me think of that story.  (Maybe it’s because of the forest setting?  Don’t ask.  I have no idea how my mind works!)  All I know is that I recommend fans of Black’s work to check this out when it’s released in February.

Happy Reading!

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

moon-over-manifestAbilene Tucker’s father, Gideon, sent her to live with an old friend for the summer, while he worked on the railroad.  While she understood that life on the railroad was not suitable for a “young lady,” she knew she would miss her father terribly.  Upon arrival, she was further disappointed to find that the town of Manifest was so dull.  After growing up hearing so many stories about her father’s time in Manifest, she had expected it to be a grander and more exciting place.  When Abilene found a hidden cigar box full of mementos, though, she found some of the adventure she had been hoping for.  After all, there were even a few letters in the box that referenced a spy called “the Rattler.”  When Abilene shared the letters with her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, they decided to work together to figure out who had been the Rattler… and then they received an anonymous note telling them to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”  Yeah.  Whoever wrote that note certainly didn’t understand that the surest way to get tween girls to work hard at solving a mystery was to basically forbid them to do so!

I liked the way Vanderpool wove together the stories of Abilene and her friends with the boys, Ned and Jinx, to whom the mementos in the box had belonged.  It was very clever to reveal the past through both newspaper articles and “readings” of the mementos by the diviner, Miss Sadie.  Not only did Miss Sadie’s storytelling help to provide details about Ned and Jinx that the girls could never have pieced together on their own, but it added a further layer of mystique as Abilene tried to figure out if Miss Sadie was truly “reading” the items or simply making up a story.  I found it a bit painful to watch Abilene struggling to find any hint of Gideon’s existence in both Manifest and the stories Miss Sadie told, I liked the fact that readers are able to look back at the end of the story to see how the various story threads all truly came together.  People who enjoy learning about the early 20th century will love the rich, historically accurate details.  (Abilene came to Manifest in the 1930s and the stories of Ned and Jinx were from 1917-1918.)

Happy Reading!

Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong by Joan Steinau Lester

black-white-otherNina Armstrong didn’t think much about being biracial until her parents split up.  She didn’t think much about her creamy mocha skin and curly brown and red hair. Until her parents decided to divorce, she didn’t really feel the need to “pick a side.” Now that her darker-skinned brother, Jimi, has moved out with their [black] dad and she has stayed living with her [white] mom, though, she is starting to question things much more.  Especially with racial tensions in Oakland rising at the same time as her parents’ split, Nina starts to feel like she doesn’t belong anywhere.  She begins to feel too black around the white kids and too white around the black kids.  Some of her best friends suddenly start to treat her differently, and she can’t seem to coexist peacefully with her mom or her dad.  She is also worried about Jimi, who seems to have fallen in with the wrong crowd, but she is worried that seeking help for him will make matters worse, or at least drive him away. The only person she seems to feel a connection with is her great-great-grandmother, Sarah Armstrong — about whom she hadn’t even know until her father shared the manuscript for the book he was writing.  As she reads about the lengths to which Sarah went, to learn how to read and to escape slavery, she finds the courage she needs to face her own struggles.

I thought this title was perfect to share right during #BannedBooksWeek, considering Sarah Armstrong’s epiphany that she had become a “feared posession: property that could read.”  Modern day activists like Malala Yousafzai are quick to remind us ignorance makes people unable to make educated decisions about their own lives and the world around them.  If the masses are kept ignorant, it is easier for the people in power to control them.  This book is also a good conversation starter for people who are interested in delving more deeply into the history of race relations in the US and the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is still/currently making headlines.

Happy Reading!