Category Archives: historical fiction

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!

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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!

Etiquette and Espionage [Finishing School series] by Gail Carriger

etiquette and espionageLong-time readers of my blog have suffered through my constant lamentations that everything is a freaking series …  I sometimes read a book not realizing that it is the first in a series (ahem, Cinder) and just about die waiting for the rest of the series to be published.  Back when this book first came out, I knew it was part of a planned series and made the conscious decision to wait until after all of the books were out before I read it.  I had heard it was good and all, but I didn’t hear enough to lure me into actually cheating.  The final book of this series came out in November, so I decided I was ready to binge-read the series (well, binge-listen to the audiobooks) this winter.  Part of me is glad I didn’t have any major gaps of time in between the stories, but part of me is so mad at myself that I didn’t just suck it up and read these from the start.  Such is life, right?!?  Darned if you do, and darned if you don’t!

The Finishing School series is just so amazing that it’s hard to explain, but I will do my best to point out the various things I loved.  The cast of characters, both normal and nefarious, was fabulous.  I think I may have clicked with this series so quickly because Sophronia has a very Georgia Nicholson feel to her — awkward but lovable; smart but bumbling.  She’s awesome enough that readers might want to be like her and not so perfect as to be annoying, you know?  And although it’s a mystery and a fantasy that takes place in a finishing school, it is a lot sillier than Libba Bray’s [Gothic mystery] Gemma Doyle series.  It still had plenty of mystery, and there were conflicts with supernatural creatures aplenty, but there was a much lighter feel to it overall.  Readers who enjoyed the steampunk airships of Oppel’s Airborn series and Westerfeld’s Leviathan series will appreciate the fact that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is held aboard a dirigible.  Not to mention the proliferation of gadgets, like exploding wicker chickens and mechanical wiener dogs!  If you like steampunk, supernatural mysteries, and/or tales of girls who don’t quite fit in with their high society families, I recommend you check this series out.

Happy Reading!