Category Archives: historical fiction

Alcatraz, oh, Alcatraz

If you’ve been longing for a little break from reality and favor prison stories and mysteries, especially if you are already a fan of the Book Scavenger series or Moose & Natalie’s Al Capone adventures,  you’ll want to check out these two.  Both take place at Alcatraz.  Both bring back favorite characters solving new puzzles, while dealing with self-doubt and growing up.  Both are a nice escape from reality and offer some insight into the history of Alcatraz.  Summer reading, anyone?

The Alcatraz Escape (Book Scavenger) by Jennifer Chambliss Bertmann

Al Capone Throws Me a Curve  by Gennifer Choldenko

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On the highway from Hell to Rome with Boy

book of boyA boy with a secret, a pilgrim with a past, a journey with a destination.  You don’t need much more for a great story.  Throw in a little bit of faith, some tragedy, someone who can speak to animals, a more than average amount of innocence, and you’ve got this book.

I’ve seen it compared to The Inquisitor’s Tale, a wild romp of a book, mostly because of its setting during a time of pilgrimages and relics and saints and demons.  It’s not a bad comparison, for kids who loved The Inquisitor’s Tale, as I did.  But to compare this to anything else is too bad, I think, since this stands perfectly well on its own.  It’s full of bullies and good people and monks and the privileged and the poor, not all of whom behave very well at all, but there is wonder and beauty and mysterious faith, too.  Mix it all up together, and it’s a story I’d be sorry I missed.

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

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War. What is it good for?

playing atariSay it with me — “absolutely nothing.”

Ali has been through one long war – Iran vs. Iraq – and now is living through the short, first Gulf War.  He and his family are not fans of Saddam Hussein, but what can they do?  Like many, they are just trying to survive.  He and his parents can remember a time when it was safer, at least, and he could go to school, but his new normal is hiding out in his house and trying not to engage with the neighborhood bullies, who just happen to be the kids of government leaders who can and do disappear people.

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein is about a childhood in an unsettled time and place, where turning the wrong corner might mean witnessing a mass execution, helping an old woman who’s fallen, being teased for being a Kurd, or playing soccer with your best friend.  It relates a child’s impressions of war – from watching for planes to being annoyed that your brother is suddenly the man of the house and can boss you around.  There are jokes and games of Monopoly, too, in a loving family like his.

Saddam Hussein might not be a name that many children today know well, but the world seems to keep creating similar types.  This could be a powerful way to talk about our troubled world with kids and to highlight how different a child’s life might be in another neighborhood, city, or country.

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: based on a true story by Jennifer Roy and Ali Fadhil

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Good guys and bad guys, survival and struggle

1saboteurI’ve loved historical fiction about World War II since I was first reading chapter books.  One of my all-time favorites as a kid was Snow Treasure, a story about kids who foil the Nazis by sneaking gold out of the country on their sleds.  Over the years, I’ve also read a lot of nonfiction on the topic, everything from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts to Double Cross by Ben Macintyre and quite a lot in between.  I also have a fondness for World War II era mysteries – everything from the Foyle’s War TV series to the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (which actually starts at the end of World War I) and the Maggie Hope mysteries by Susan Elia MacNeal.

So it’s no surprise that I loved The Saboteur: the Aristrocrat who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix.  French Resistance, Nazis, escaping certain death several times – I’m there!  The story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld reads like a spy novel instead of a series of documented life events, which has ensured that I’ve suggested it to all of my patrons who like reading about spies, war, or French history.  It’s also a wonderful book, because it addresses the gray areas in which people exist during war.  Not everyone is 100% good or bad; there are compromises and bad decisions in addition to all of the luck and occasional happy endings.

While I can see many adults and even some teens enjoying this book, you might also consider some fictional favorites of mine on similar topics.  Some are specifically for younger readers; others work for many ages.

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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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