Category Archives: historical fiction

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know

war i wonAda is finally in a safe place, after a whole lot of limbo – the state of uncertainty not the dance – in The War that Saved My Life.  It’s still World War II and she’s still in the countryside outside London, but now she’s got a horse, a guardian, and a safe place to live with her brother.

The war brings all kinds of confusing new things, but then, that’s nothing surprising for Ada.  So much is still new, since her mother had basically trapped her in their apartment in London for years before she escaped when children were sent to the countryside because of the bombing.

It’s hard for Ada, but over time, she comes to see how many of those around her struggle, too.  In her own awkward and uncertain way, she tries to help.  Sometimes it works; sometimes it’s harder.  She still struggles with fear and anger and not feeling safe.  Has she finally turned a corner at the end?  Maybe.  We hope so.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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Not for the faint of heart, definitely for the clever and daring

assassins curseBy the third book in a series, story lines sometimes wander a bit.  Either there’s just not enough personality in the lead character to keep things interesting or the story just becomes ridiculously complicated or unusually unbelievable.  You might think The Assassin’s Curse could fall under that umbrella, but Kevin Sands manages to keep everything moving along, even if there are a crazy number of conspiracies and puzzle clues and even royalty involved.  Heck, that’s what makes it so good!

Another thing about this one – it’s LONG, really long.  If I remember right, the second one in the series was also much longer than the average middle grade book, but it worked.  And so does this one.  Fortunately, I had a morning off and could read the last 200 pages in relative quiet.  There are a lot of characters and interesting tidbits about the Knights Templar and Paris to keep track of, after all.

If you missed the first two books, you might enjoy this one a bit more if you read them first, but I don’t think Christopher, Tom and Sally are characters you have to know in advance to follow what’s going on.  Set aside an afternoon, though, so you can really sink in and enjoy this one.  It’s a great escape and well worth any undone chores.

The Assassin’s Curse by Kevin Sands

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Love. Loss. Revenge. A little history. A little fantasy.

book of pearlIf you are looking for a straightforward action story, do not read this book.  If you are 100% anchored in reality, maybe take a pass.  If, however, you are on vacation, like to think about alternate realities, or don’t mind a love story which stretches far beyond the “normal” lives of two people, find a way to get your hands on The Book of Pearl.

I think it’s fair to say that Timothée de Fombelle has reached a status with me that almost touches Kathi Appelt.  I sought this book out, ordering a copy from England when I didn’t see it in the libraries around me. (Apparently, on further research, it won’t be released in the U.S. until Feb. 2018.  So that’s why…)  I loved de Fombelle’s Vango stories and have recommended them to several kids who like action but also appreciate good writing and story development and all kinds of twists and turns.  He’s not a popular author in the U.S., I don’t think, but maybe he should be.

And the extra work was worth it.  It’s a beautiful book, although maybe not one that you’d want to try to read in just a chapter a day.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of, characters who dip in and out and who might just seem to inhabit the fringes until suddenly they don’t.  There is evil and loss and quite a bit of sadness, but the joyful moments are almost luminous.  (I’m assuming the translators get some gold stars for that, too.)

It’s the perfect book for a long afternoon of quiet in a state forest.  Detach from technology and give it a try.  It’s not exactly a happy ending, but hey—he’s French.  Deal with it.

The Book of Pearl by Timothée de Fombelle

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Hell and high water and a whole lot of other stuff

hellandhighwaterI don’t remember how this book ended up on my list.  I haven’t actually been getting much serious (or not serious) reading done lately, although I’ve done a few re-reads of Dumplin’ (awesome as always) and Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen (part of my annual attempt to remember languages I haven’t spoken for a few decades).  Given much thought, I probably would have found something a bit lighter, especially since I usually don’t go for things with puppets of any kind.  They’re a little like clowns to me—kind of creepy and maybe a little menacing, unless they are fluffy, cute animal puppets which are a completely different thing.

Anyhoo, this is a great book.  There are bad guys — rich aristocrats cheating poor people and a few of their own supposed friends, sending the undeserving off to jail or to the colonies – and a few scrappy good guys and a lot of intrigue, action, and close escapes.  Letty and Caleb become friends and partners-in-making-things-right, and you’re with them all the way.  It’s not a happy story, really, but it works.  As a read-aloud, there could be a lot to discuss with the right group of kids: gossip, discrimination, power, women’s roles, poverty, justice.  So take a break from reality and travel back to 1752 for a few hours.  You’ll be glad you did.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

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What is said and what is unsaid

beyondthebrightseaLauren Wolk is a master of atmosphere and setting.  There, I’ve said it.  Why not just put it up front and out there, right?  I found her earlier book,  Wolf Hollow, dark, titling my review of it “A lingering toxic fog,” not maybe what you’d think was a positive review. (It was not my typical positive review, but still…)

But apparently, she has a skill for this, and she’s able to dredge up a whole yard full of emotions in whatever she writes.  You might be pulled there slowly… or an angry, violent thief might materialize pounding on your door.  You’re never quite sure of anything.

Some mysteries are solved – Crow, the abandoned infant who’s now trying to find out more about her parents, does learn what has happened to her parents and that she has a brother.  But other questions are not solved as neatly or with happy endings.  Some characters are revealed; others stay a step back and out of the limelight.   And that is just fine.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

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Prequel? Do I care?

pearl thief cover USA_0Well, it depends.  This one, a prequel to Elizabeth Wein’s excellent Code Name Verity, was one I waited for, wondering if it would really match up with what I remembered of a character, her situation, and a time period.  Then, about five chapters in, I realized I didn’t really care if it was a prequel or not.  It’s just a good story.

Why?  The mystery involved in a missing man, a body, the Water Bailiff, and a family of aristocrats reminds me of great English mysteries where thin layers are peeled back, one after another, to reveal all kinds of ugliness, bitterness, secrets, and even good.  Julia Beaufort-Stuart is bold and afraid, cautious and confident, aware of her privilege but limited by its demands, too.

This book may explain a lot about the character she becomes in Code Name Verity, but while the connection is wonderful, it’s not necessary.  Julia and the story are enough.   Wonderfully enough.

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

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The war here, the war there

genevieve-warWhen I was young, World War II stories always drew me in.  There’s something about Nazis that makes it seem pretty easy to pick out good guys and bad guys.  I knew who to root for – the Nazis were bad and the French resistance fighters were good.  There’s something comforting about knowing things fall into such simple categories.  I knew if faced with that kind of evil, I would resist.  We’re always the good guys when we’re kids, right?

I still enjoy reading about World War II.  Even now, stories of real people from that time come out and reveal lives, loss, and resistance that was hidden or forgotten.  One of the teens I worked with described his trip to the Holocaust Museum by saying, “That Hitler was one bad dude.”  So, that hasn’t changed.  But in fiction, there’s room to explore a little.

In Genevieve’s War, for example, some Nazis are really awful, but others seem just as trapped as Genevieve and her grandmother, who are trying to survive on a farm in Alsace.  Genevieve is American, but her parents have died, and what starts as a summer vacation with Mémé turns into a years-long relocation.  Under the Germans, even friends are eyed suspiciously.  Who can Genevieve trust with her secrets?  Will she and Mémé be exposed?

Patricia Reilly Giff explored the World War II homefront in the U.S. in Lily’s Crossing, which pairs perfectly with this story.  They show different sides of the war (for Americans) and the challenges people faced.  As part of a larger discussion of the war (or wars in general), they demonstrate how ordinary people live in difficult times without dwelling much on the actual violence of war.  There are explosions and people are taken away to prison, for example, but the ugliness of war is felt more in the constant fear and threats against Genevieve and the village rather than in graphic descriptions.

Good guys.  Bad guys.  Sometimes it’s just not that simple.

Genevieve’s War by Patricia Reilly Giff

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What’s personal is political

dreamlandWill and Rowan are separated by close to a hundred years, but their efforts to confront racial discrimination and adapt to society’s expectations for them are strangely similar.  In the 1920s, Will has a tough time resisting the verbal and physical threats of Ku Klux Klan members who will eventually burn down the African-American part of Tulsa.  In the present day, Rowan isn’t sure she’s the right person to stand up, either.  Both characters make mistakes, alienate friends, and eventually find their way.

I’ll be interested to hear how readers who are African American or Native American see this book.  For me, it started a little slow, but became very compelling, especially since both sections mirror real history and current events.  I don’t know a person who hasn’t messed up something in adolescence, immediately regretted it, but then struggled with how to fix it.  It could provide a great starting point for discussions on race, expectations, and how we make choices.  The parallel lives also do a nice job of illuminating how much and how little changes over what seems like a long time.  It worked for me.  Give it a look.

Dreamland Burning  by Jennifer Latham

For another perspective, see this review at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

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Classics I’ve missed

rascalWell, at least one children’s classic.  Rascal.  It was definitely published long enough ago (1963) that I should have heard about it or read it somewhere during the many happy (and sad) hours I spent reading about boys and their pets – Sounder, The Yearling, Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows.  Somehow, though, I missed this one about a raccoon and his boy.  (Just an aside, but why don’t I remember books about girls taking off in a homemade canoe with raccoons or dogs, or am forgetting something?  Were girls just not good campers?  And if that was the case, why did I spend all that time in Girl Scouts?)

Rascal is a nostalgic book, full of memories of a time long past.  Sterling has what must have looked like a dream life for a boy, although he’s still grieving the loss of his mother and is worried about his brother off in the Great War.  His dad lets him build a canoe in the house and gives Sterling more freedom than seems wise at times.  He doesn’t even blink at having a baby raccoon thrown into the mix.  Sensibilities have changed, and I doubt a wild animal as a pet would work as well in a middle grade book now, but this kinder, gentler version of family and community life still provides some interesting talking points.  How do you deal with meddling relatives?  How do you decide what’s best for you or a loved one?  How much supervision do kids really need?  Is life just too structured now?  Could you give up your electronic devices for two weeks and just live off the land?  (I’m reading it with a group of 5th graders, and I guess we have to have something to talk about when we’re “discussing” it.  We aren’t the best at staying on task.  Our last book, Number the Stars, revealed some interesting misconceptions about the geography of Denmark, royalty and Nazis, so who knows where the pet raccoon will take us?)

Now if I could just get myself to take another stab at some of that 18th century French literature I should have read in college… 

Rascal by Sterling North

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For friends of Jane

secrets-in-the-snow-coverMurder.  Social climbers.  Love.  Jane Austen references.

Jane Austen is one of my go-to authors if I’ve just had too much of anything – teen drama, fast-moving action thrillers, strange stories that start off one thing and end up another.  Once in a while I enjoy reading the various offshoots of her work, which either use Jane as a character or set stories in the world of her characters.  There are modern romcom versions, graphic novels, zombies.  Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James is a favorite of mine. The Stephanie Barron Jane mysteries and Curtis Sittenfeld’s updated Pride and PrejudiceEligible— are also good examples.

Secrets in the Snow is a new addition to this collection, focusing on a teenaged Jane Austen.  Michaela MacColl has taken bits and pieces of Jane’s life and her books and thrown in a murder, and it works.  There are lies and secrets and love… everything you’d expect.  It’s a good read for a cold, snowy day (which would match the cover) when you need a break from the real world.

Secrets in the Snow by Michaela McColl

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