Tag Archives: historical fiction

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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This just isn’t going to end well.

dolssaHeretics. Zealots and inquisitors.  Uppity women and girls in the 13th century.  Recipe for disaster?  Oh boy, yes indeedy.

Dolssa is a young woman whose relationship with Jesus is so intense, he has become real to her.  She can see him, sense him, feel him close to her.  She is a mystic, and not one sanctioned by the church.  She speaks his message to others and quickly lands in trouble with the Church, most particularly with Friar Lucien, an angry and toxic being who believes the only way to end her corrosive influence is to kill her.  She and her mother are sentenced to burn at the stake.

Meanwhile, Botille and her sisters Plazensa and Sazia have finally landed in a town that seems to accept them and their drunk father figure.  They run the tavern, tell fortunes and do a little matchmaking.  They find ways to help out here and there, and they seem to have found a home after many years of instability.

Then these lives intersect.  And really, a happy ending is never all that likely, although there are moments of hope even at the very end.  It’s clear that life for most strong women during the Middle Ages was not easy, because having an opinion or making your own life choices really didn’t fit into the plan the men in charge had for them.  It’s not a quick read, but it’s worth the time it will take you.  There are some really wonderful historical notes at the end of the book which explain the times more fully and provide more resources for anyone interested in learning more.

(As noted in the comments, this book was named a Michael L. Printz  for Excellence in Young Adult Literature Honor book.  The award winner was another favorite, March, Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.)

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

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A twist in a tale

snow-whiteWith updated fairy tales out in space (Interstellar Cinderella), full of cyborgs (Cinder) and rad girls (The Sleeper and the Spindle), you might think we don’t really need more of the genre.  However, the beauty of the classic folk tale is that there are so many directions you can go – times, places, settings.

Matt Phelan’s take on Snow White is set before and  during the Great Depression, which might not initially seem like a good fit.  But really, he doesn’t even have to work hard to get you to buy into it.  Snow is the daughter of a wealthy man who remarries just before the Crash, the seven little men are street kids, and the prince is a police detective.  It all falls together perfectly, and there’s a happy ending.  Along the way, I loved the way the characters’ facial expressions and simple language actually made the story feel bigger.  It works on many levels, and I think it can be enjoyed that way, too.

Snow White: a graphic novel by Matt Phelan

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Remembering 9/11 with kids who aren’t old enough to remember it

nine-ten-a-september-11-story-9781442485068_lg“People always talk about the weather when they don’t have anything else to talk about…But after that day the weather, and the way people remembered it, became something more; something potentially more deceptive, and yet something much more meaningful, more fragile and rare, and even more beautiful.” (nine, ten, Baskin.)

Like many people, one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of what happened on September 11th, 2001 is how beautiful the morning was.  I’d been married less than a month, and my husband and I both remember talking about what a perfect day it was.  (This is Iowa, after all, and even newlyweds talk about the weather!) By the time I was on my way to the dentist, NPR was talking about the the first plane hitting, and while my teeth were being cleaned, I could hear the TV in the other room reporting what would become days of confusion, disaster, missing people, and so many questions.

Nora Raleigh Baskin’s book, nine, ten, arrives almost exactly fifteen years after the tragedy, and its timing is fitting in more ways than just that.  We might have lost a piece of our innocence that day, and we might have come together in shock, but as a country we also quickly fell into the easy habit of creating heroes and villains to explain away what happened.  Seeing Baskin’s characters in the days just before 9/11 gives readers some perspective on how the day might have affected very different kinds of people, making it easy to imagine how life-changing 9/11 would be for all of us.

With four main characters and what seemed like an intentionally choppy beginning, it could have been a more challenging read than I might have liked.  But somehow, as I got to know the characters, jumping between them became much smoother and effortless.  Although they aren’t connected until the very end of the book, they seem connected.

9/11 is not an easy topic for a middle grade book, but nine, ten would be a great way to introduce what it was, how it happened, and who it affected.  We are still looking for heroes and villains today, and painting a whole group of people as being good or bad is very definitely a part of kids’ lives.  This book could lead to a variety of discussions with kids.  It might take place in the past, but the challenges continue.

nine, ten: a September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

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A gallery of truth, fiction, poison and power


A recluse, a sketchy husband, servants with secrets, hidden doors…sign me up!

Martha’s sassy behavior gets her booted out of Catholic school and into a job at her mother’s workplace.  Once the suds settle from all the pans she has to wash, though, Martha starts noticing things that don’t fit together.   Is there something nefarious going on?  Is the mistress of the mansion going crazy?  Or is something making her crazy?  Martha’s vivid imagination begins to work away, generating all kinds of possibilities.

With its blend of art, mystery, privilege, and power, The Gallery is sort of like a fun mix of Chasing Vermeer and Downton Abbey.  The author’s note at the end helps explain some of the crazier historical inspirations for the story – anarchist plots, poisonings, wild stock market speculation, and anti-immigrant policies.  It’s a quick read, but don’t read it too quickly or you’ll miss all of the great references to paintings, literature and history.  And if you missed Fitzgerald’s Under the Egg, go back and find it, too. Fun, fun, fun.

The Gallery, Laura Marx Fitzgerald

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