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I’m sure I heard about this book when it first came out, but somehow, my library didn’t buy it (I’ve since requested that we do so) and we can’t interloan new books… so I forgot about it, until, once again, Charlotte wrote about the sequel.

The Coming of the DragonThe Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse.

As the book says on the cover, this is a story of Beowulf. Specifically, it’s the story at the end of the epic poem, when Beowulf is an aged king, and a dragon comes and disrupts the peace. At the beginning of the story, we see a baby wash up to shore in a boat with a dead man, formally and properly laid out. Though there is some dissention from those who think the baby an offering who should be left to the gods, the old woman Amma takes and raises him. Fast forward sixteen years, and young Rune, called so for the rune on the necklace he came with, is living in a hut on a farm with Amma, with a foster father and two unkind stepbrothers in a house nearby. In the summers he helps on the farm, while Amma sings him ballads of kings and of Peaceweavers, noblewomen sent to marry into another tribe and make peace between them. Only in the winters is he allowed to join the other town boys in sword training, which of course puts him at a permanent disadvantage. Even though he’s close to the right age, he isn’t one of King Beowulf’s official warriors. One evening on the mountain, chasing after a runaway goat, Rune meets a stranger hiding a gold cup, who recognizes the rune. While Rune is still on the mountain, the dragon makes its first pass, burning farms, people, and even the king’s Golden Hall. Burning with desire to avenge Amma’s death, Rune sets off on his own to slay the dragon. Though he fails, he learns where the dragon’s cave is, and so comes along on the next, official expedition with Beowulf and his best warriors. Can even King Beowulf defeat a beast whose very presence strikes terror into the hearts of the bravest warrior? And (just supposing here that they actually succeed in killing the dragon), Rune might just find that the hardest part comes afterward. A country whose houses and crops have been burned down and which is surrounded by hostile nations isn’t exactly in the clear, even without a dragon.

I’d really like some of my friends who specialize in Viking to read this for their opinion, but from my point of view, this is bang-up historical fantasy. I didn’t notice any jarring anachronisms either in the setting or, as happens even more often, in the main character’s mindset. That can work in some cases – the Jacky Faber books, for example, which are aiming at adventure more than historical accuracy. Still, the kind of attention to detail found here is a joy. There are no potatoes, velvet, spinning wheels, people saying “hello” or believing in their heart of hearts that slavery is wrong and women are oppressed, to name just a few of the anachronisms that I regularly see in historical fiction. (Though Barnhouse, in her notes, says that it isn't entirely accurate, incorporating bits of Anglo-Saxon culture from a few centuries later.) Even though this is fantasy from a modern point of view, it’s a book that feels like it isn’t fantasy from the point of view of people of the same time from our world. They call for help from the gods, and are encouraged when they see ravens or goats with two-color eyes, r animals beloved of their gods. Everyone has lost people they love, due to war or the dragon or other causes, and this also felt realistically dealt with: lots of pain, and yet life has to go on. One of the reviewers on Amazon complained that Rune lacks self-confidence through the whole book: shouldn’t he start believing in himself at some point? And I would say, why should he? He starts the book as one of the unpopular kids, and getting thrown into a position of power doesn’t stop him from realizing that he’s young for what he’s got to do, and any mistakes he makes would have dire consequences. Really, I find this attitude both believable and much easier to get along with in a protagonist than, say, Eragon, whose unearned self-confidence struck me as arrogant.

At the very end of the book, we meet Hild, sent to Rune’s tribe as a Peaceweaver. She is the heroine in her own right of Peaceweaver, which came out this year. I don’t have time to give it a full review, but it starts and ends at the same point as The Coming of the Dragon, and I enjoyed it hugely as well. More, please!

For some reason, the first of these two books was billed as middle grade fiction, and the second as teen – um, thinking about it, probably because Rune doesn’t kill any people himself, while Hild accidentally kills a would-be murderer. Overall, though, no sex, and what felt like similar amounts of violence with thoughtful reflections on the effects and limitations of using weapons for conflict resolution.
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The Scottish PrisonerThe Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. It must have been my very first year as a librarian, nearly ten years ago now, when a patron I was talking to put her hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “You have got to read the Outlander series. They are the best books in the world.” Well, I’m too fond of having lots of books to call any one series the best in the world, but for once, I took her advice and started the series. The books are addictive, long and involved, such a tight blend of historical fiction, time travel, and romance that the publishers originally decided to market them as romance mostly because romance had the biggest audience, though at the library, we shelve them in SciFi/Fantasy. Gabaldon now has a spin-off series and has done a graphic novel featuring the story from the first book from the point of view of the other main character. I haven’t kept up with all of these – I have a hard time justifying reading everything in a series as a librarian – but considering the volume of the output, I think that missing just one of the main series (which came out the same time my daughter was born) and one of the spin-offs is doing pretty well. Given all that, I was shocked to realize that I couldn’t find that I’ve ever reviewed a Gabaldon book here. However, there is again no way to review (or read) this book without massive spoilers for the first couple of those books.

This book is somewhere between a spin-off and a main series book. It stars Jamie, the hero of the main series, and Lord John, the hero of the spin-off Lord John mysteries. It takes place during the time covered by the third series book, when our heroine Claire is back in her present day. That makes it a little lighter on romance than most of the other books, though Jamie does spend a lot of time thinking about her. Anyway, as our story begins, Jamie is serving parole at the estate of Helwater for his crimes of being on the wrong side at Culloden (being a Highlander and all). Lord John found him this position, where he’s technically a prisoner, but working as the master of horse under an assumed name. What is a secret even to Lord John is that the current heir to the estate and title, Willie (aged two) is actually Jamie’s son. While the story of his conception and his mother’s death was covered in one of the other big novels, this was the first time to my recollection that we get to see Jamie with his son, as affectionate and protective as he can be within the confines of his role. His peaceful retreat begins to break down when one of the maids sends him a message to meet with someone up in the hills, someone who turns out to be Quinn, an Irishman and Jacobite who previously fought in the war with Jamie. He brings news of a second Rising and begs Jamie to help lead it. Jamie refuses, though he cannot tell Quinn that he refuses because he knows from Claire that the Rising is doomed to failure, and more attempts will only mean more suffering and death. Quinn is quite determined, and follows Jamie even when soldiers come to take him to London. Meanwhile, Lord John has received a last request with a packet of documentation from a recently deceased friend – use the documentation to convict Lord Siverly, a high-ranking military official of some dark and evil deeds. Siverly is currently holed up in Ireland, and John’s brother Hal decides that Jamie, coming closer to speaking Irish than anyone else he knows (I think this is the reason, anyway) is the best person to accompany John on the journey to fetch him back to England where he can be court-martialed.

Got that? There’s two separate strands of twining political intrigue, between the politics of the original crimes and the second rising. There are lots and lots of characters that I wasn’t sure if I’d met before or not, only that it was challenging keeping track of them all. This is par for the course, really. Beyond the tangles, the story is about Jamie and Lord John being forced back together after their friendship exploded back in Ardsmuir prison when, among other dramatic events, Lord John made a romantic advance on Jamie and was rebuffed with horror. Can they find a way to trust each other again? Will their friendship ever recover? And how will Jamie balance his desire to keep Scotland safe from a second Rising with the need to protect those he cares about from implicated in the plotting currently occurring? Even though I felt that rereading the first couple of books might have helped me feel less lost, this is still addictive Gabaldon, with strong characters and immersive plotting. And yeah, if you haven't read her before, start at the beginning, with Outlander. The audio books are famously well done, too.
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Laundry DayLaundry Day by Maurie J. Manning.
Laundry Day falls somewhere between a graphic novel and a picture book, with a comic book-style layout of cells in a picture book size and target age. Our hero is a little shoeshine boy in a big city, probably around the 1910s. He’s looking fruitlessly for customers when a bright red cloth drops down on him from the tall buildings above. One level up, he sees a Chinese laundress, so he climbs up to ask if it’s hers. It isn’t, but she offers him a moon cake and sends him to a neighbor whom she thinks might be the owner. The little boy’s journey goes on, as he climbs up balconies and across laundry lines, meeting and helping neighbors in small ways. In one case, he takes a penny to an Italian organ grinder from a Ukrainian mother with a crying baby, to see if some music will calm the baby. They are Chinese, Italian, Polish, Jamaican, Ukrainian, and Jewish, as revealed by their hanging laundry and tiny bits of their native languages sprinkled in (pronunciations and definitions given in a glossary at the end). Not until he reaches the roof of the building does he meet the owner. Once he is down on the ground again, the neighborhood is filled with friends instead of strangers and his shoeshine business is booming. One of my youth librarians points out that this is a rare book for preschool/early elementary that takes place during the “Olden Days” in a city rather than on the frontier. This is joyous celebration of the New World and of community.

Cross-posted to and .


Apr. 30th, 2012 11:24 am
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And now for another look at old New York, this time those parts inhabited by Jews.

UnterzakhnUnterzakhn by Leela Corman.

“Unterzakhn” is Yiddish for “underthings”, which seems to refer both to our main characters, on the bottom end of the social ladder, tied together with views of laundry lines drying underthings between chapters. This story takes follows two girls growing up in the tenements of New York, from 1909 to 1923. Fanya and Esther are six when we meet them, according to the back cover. Fanya is sent to find Bronia, the Lady-Doctor, because Mrs. Gold is bleeding out in the street. Unfortunately, Bronia is too late, and she refuses to tell Fanya just what has happened, despite her persistent questions. However, Bronia comes back to their mother to ask for permission to teach the girls to read. Permission is granted only for Fanya, as the mother doesn’t really think learning necessary for girls, and wants help still with their little sister Feigl. Even so, Esther finds herself drawn to the nearby burlesque and whorehouse. She’s interested in the dancing, and starts learning despite teasing from some of the other dancing about her Jewish looks. As the girls grow older, Fanya starts helping Bronia more with her work of helping women with childbirth, while also providing illegal abortions (mostly early on, via herbal teas) and family planning training, just as controversial. In this world where death in childbirth is frequent and those who survive end up with more children than they can feed, Bronia’s advocacy for total celibacy seems reasonable. (Although I wondered why Bronia didn’t seem to have any remedies for postpartum hemorrhage, as my own midwives remedies included ones that seemed time-tested as well as modern.) Meanwhile, Esther starts working on both sides of the House. After their father dies, a flashback shows us his journey to America from Russia, forced out by a regime willing to kill any Jews who won’t leave on their own. After his death, Fanya and Esther’s lives diverge further, as Esther gains fame and wealthy patrons, while Fanya’s work starts gaining her enemies. Spoiler alert - by the end of the book, only one member of the original family of five is still alive.

This is a much darker view of life in New York City than we see in Gone to Amerikay. There’s a lot of blood and unglamorous nudity, though not as much actual sex shown as one might expect for a book starring a prostitute. In spite of this, Corman’s characters are so full of life and joy, her strong black-and-white drawings so vibrant, that the book comes across as a celebration of the strong people of the tenements, determined to live their life to the fullest, no matter how shoddy the hand they are dealt. This is one that fans of grittier historical fiction with strong women will enjoy.
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Two graphic novels about the immigrant experience in New York City have just come into my hands (um, by me purchasing them for the library.) This is the first of them.

Gone to AmerikayGone to Amerikay by Derek McCullough. Art by Colleen Doran. This graphic novel interweaves the story of three periods of Irish people coming to America. In 1870, Ciara O’Dwyer comes with her young daughter Maire, expecting her husband Fintan to follow soon. She moves in with family in the slums of New York and starts working as a laundress to support herself. Months pass, and even though a letter arrives saying that Fintan is on his way, he never turns up. Only Tim O’Shea, an altar boy with her husband when they were small, comes. Tim tells Ciara that Fintan changed his mind, joined the military, and might turn up in a few years. Meanwhile, he gets involved with the Irish gangs in New York and starts drawing Ciara into his Life of Crime. Meanwhile, in 1960, Johnny McCormack, a young would-be actor, emigrates to New York and finds work performing traditional and original Irish music instead. He falls in love with another Irish boy, a less recent immigrant, who introduces him to the right people but also breaks his heart. Finally, in 2010, businessman Lewis Healy, made rich by the Celtic Tiger, comes with his assistant who is giving him a tour of the origins of “Ciara’s Song.” This was the least interesting story for me – nothing really happens to Lewis himself – but it holds key information to both of the other stories. There is a wee bit of ghost story mixed into this – really just one creepy spread - but lots and lots of Irish song lyrics and an old story or two. I never really got a feel for the modern character, but both Ciara and Johnny have for me a deep inner integrity – that lifted them out of their sordid circumstances and gave the story, despite its many distressing elements, an overall upbeat feeling. I never lost confidence that both Ciara and Johnny would live out their American dreams, despite the many setbacks. Colleen Doran, famous for her work on Sandman, does not disappoint with the beautiful work that captures the people and places of all the different times. There is some violence and implied sex that might make this unsuitable for young children, but overall, this is an uplifting tale of the Irish immigrants in America.

Cross-posted to and .
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Usually, when the year’s Newbury-award-winning book is announced, I check to see whether I’ve read it or not, and add it to my mental “to read” list if I haven’t. I will note that a mental list is very good for avoiding stress and guilt for not keeping up with the reading, but not so good at actually getting the books read. This year, I put the Newbury and Caldecott books on hold right away, and am currently listening to one of the Odyssey books (for best childrens audio) with the boy. (The actual winner of the Odyssey, Rotters is all about corpse robbing, and therefore not for me.)

Dead End in NorveltDead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. It’s 1962 in Norvelt, a Pennsylvania town founded as a self-sufficient homestead community by Eleanor Roosevelt in the Depression. Now, in 1962, the original residents are slowly dying off – all women, as the men died of black lung from working in the mines much earlier.When I first started this book, about a boy named Jack Gantos growing up in the same town as author Jack Gantos, I was prepared for another thoughtful and moving but ultimately somewhat boring book about growing up in a slow, long-ago time. The start felt a tad slow to me, as young Jack gets in trouble for accidentally firing a Japanese WWII rifle that he hadn’t thought was loaded at the local drive-in screen. One of his major entertainments seems to watching war movies from his yard using binoculars. Maybe not boring for boys, but boring for me. The tension ramps up for Jack as his father orders him to mow down his mother’s treasured field of corn for feeding the poor, with the upshot that Jack is grounded for the summer. His big project is digging a bomb shelter and a runway for the old fighter plane his father is trying to fix up. This plane and destruction building the runway causes are symptomatic of the tension between Jack’s mother, who was born in Norvelt and loves it, and his father, who wasn’t and who considers it a dead-end town to be escaped. The only time Jack is allowed to leave the house is to help one of the original residents, the former town nurse, Miss Volker, type obituaries of the others as they pass, as Miss Volker is too arthritic to do so. Long ago, she promised to marry Mr. Spizz, the tricycle-riding town sheriff, when all of these ladies were dead, and he never lets her forget it. Additional color comes from the nosebleeds Jack gets whenever he is frightened, from his best friend Bunny, a fierce Small Person who is the daughter of the local mortician, and the unexpected death by truck of a strange Hells Angel. All of these elements weave together into a story that has lots of over-the-top gross humor combined with nostalgia and sorrow at the ending of a utopia as well as good old-fashioned kid fun. Spoiler – the old ladies turn out to be dying of unnatural causes, and somehow, this is mostly treated as something to laugh at. This treatment makes the book lighter for the grade-school readers it’s aimed at, but I still found the casualness the murders were treated with a little horrifying. For those who can get past this, this book has enough excitement to pull a reader in as well as enough meat to leave the reader with something to think about.

Cross-posted to and .
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book coverThe Entymological Tales of Augustus T. Percival: Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone by Dene LowThis one I picked up just based on the title. It’s funny and light, set just after the turn of the last century. Petronella, a plucky British lass, is just about to have her coming out party, having just turned sixteen. However, two unfortunate events occur. First, her uncle Augustus accidentally swallows a beetle and develops an insatiable and most improper appetite for bugs. Secondly, two foreign dignitaries who showed up at her coming-out party uninvited are kidnapped from it. Despite rival factions of eccentric relatives trying to prevent her from doing so, Petronella sets out to solve both of these mysteries. She is aided by her best friend Jane and Jane’s brother James, a beautiful specimen of manhood. (If only James would notice Petronella as anything but a younger sister! Alas!) Petronella and her Uncle Augustus are both charming characters whom I would love to see more of. This is a romp for middle school and up both as historical fiction and for the mystery, at an age level where mysteries are in short supply.
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book coverMaisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs is both the main character and the first book in a mystery series set in post-World War I England. It’s one of those that looked attractive when I first read the reviews several years ago, but I just now got around to reading. Maisie Dobbs is setting up shop as a private investigator when the book opens. Her first client is a husband who feels that his wife’s attention is straying and wants to know where she goes when she is out all day two days a week. Maisie solves this mystery in the first third of the book, but finds the case leading her on to a deeper mystery, one that turns out to have personal resonance. This involves finding a farm where WWI veterans with no faces go, and where they are called only by their first names. Investigating this draws us back into Maisie’s back story, a working-class girl whose aristocratic patron sent her to college, which she left to go to France as a field nurse. Maisie’s fairy-tale rise from the lower class and her great personal charm, beauty and intelligence go together to make a character that, while extremely likeable, uses more than a fair allotment of character points. I’m guessing, though, that this is laid on extra-thick because of it being the first book in the series and that Maisie will seem less magical in subsequent books. The darkness and probably reality of the battlefield story offsets this aspect of the book enough to make it neither too grim nor too sweet. This is an excellent choice for lovers of mystery and historical fiction.
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book coverAge of Bronze. Vols 1-3 by Eric Shanower There was this famous war in the Bronze Age in a city named Troy, about which many, many stories have been written over the centuries, including most famously the Iliad, which somehow doesn’t include some of the most famous bits of the legend. Shanower is doing his best to weave these stories into a cohesive whole. Not only did he read a lot of stories, but he did a lot of art and archeological research to make the settings, the clothes, and the people as accurate and realistic as possible. Naturally, this amount of research appeals to the library geek and the historical recreationist in me, but all would be lost if the story didn’t work. Shanower’s beautifully detailed drawings and expressive text bring the ancient characters to life. He’s made the decision not to have the gods appear in the story, though the characters nearly uniformly strongly believe in them and appear to receive messages from them. While a strong break from the Iliad, it’s a choice that makes the story more accessible to modern readers, who may pray for guidance but don’t generally view people as heroes who succeed only because the gods made it happen. It also makes the story deeper and more ambiguous: did Aphrodite really promise Helen to Paris? Or is this just another excuse from a young man who demonstrates overpowering arrogance and belief in his own charm from the very beginning, starting with deciding to win the royal athletic contests to win back his family’s bull and continuing on to kidnapping Helen instead of liberating the aged aunt he was sent to rescue, just because he didn’t care about an old woman. I just read the entry on the Iliad in Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan; one of the things he mentions is how cinematic Homer’s language is. This work feels cinematic as well, as the view zooms from close-ups to wide panoramas. Though in line with the Iliad, the war itself is just getting started at the end of volume three, there’s plenty of violence, sex and mayhem to keep things going in the meantime. This is a book that manages to be beautiful, macho and compelling all at the same time.


Jun. 24th, 2009 11:56 am
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book coverAya by Marguerite Abouet & Clement Oubrerie It’s 1978 in the Ivory Coast, a good and prosperous time. Teenage Aya is growing up with her two best friends, Adjoua and Bintou. Aya studies hard and wants to be a doctor, while Adjoua and Bintou are more interested in going out dancing and meeting boys. Aya’s father agrees more with Adjoua and Bintou that marriage is the best ambition for a girl, as he tries to arrange a marriage for Aya with his wealthy boss’s skirt-chasing son. She’s not interested, but both Adjoua and Bintou, who’ve met him out dancing, are. It’s a slice of life from an Africa that, rare for Westerners to see, isn’t desperate, though the differences in culture and setting are especially apparent in the graphic novel format. The story (not too uncommonly for graphic novels, seemingly collected for size rather than neat plot arcs from comic books) ends rather abruptly, but there is a sequel. I bought it for the adult collection mostly because it’s a little more thoughtful than our teens tend to go for; still, there is nothing inappropriate for teens here, and plenty for them to relate to. The straightforward panel layouts and narration make this an easy starting point for those less familiar with comics, as well.
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I am indebted to Colleen at for this as well as the Sisters Grimm… I think she wrote a column about mysteries for kids and teens last summer. Somehow I missed the first in the series and started with the second… though I made it through without noticing, you might wish to start with the first book, The Case of the Missing Marquess.

book coverThe Case of the Left-Handed Lady by Nancy Springer. Read by Katherine Kellgren. Enola is the much younger sister of Sherlock – just 14, and knowing her older brother mostly through Dr. Watson’s famous books. Her mother recently ran away, and Enola is now living on her own, hiding from her brothers, who want to send her to boarding school. She and her mother communicate via ciphers in the newspapers, which enterprising readers could try to solve for themselves. Enola is posing as the secretary to a Scientific Perditorian or finder of lost persons, intending to do the finding herself. Dr. Watson comes to her office, seeking help in finding her, but accidentally leading her to the case of a missing society lady, only a few years older than herself. The police and Sherlock Holmes assume that she’s eloped, but Enola doesn’t believe it and uses her wits and multiple disguises to solve the mystery. Enola is an excellent character, determined to stay independent but still figuring herself out, and ever conscious that her name, backwards, spells “Alone.” Raised feminist by her mother, she knowingly manipulates the Victorian conventions regarding females to fit in multiple places without resorting so low as to disguise herself as a man, from high society houses to London’s poor and sooty underbelly. My husband and I both very much enjoyed these. For the children it’s actually aimed at, parents should be aware that there is some violence that could be disturbing for younger or sensitive children – I’d put it as more appropriate for 12 and up than the 10 years I read on the case. Katherine Kellgren’s assured British accents are perfect for Enola and adapt themselves well to the many characters of different classes in the book. Enola might not exist without Sherlock, but she’s well worth reading in her own right, a strong character in a vivid (if vivid is the right word for sooty fog) setting with just the right balance between plot tension and introspection.
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book coverHand of Isis by Jo Graham This is the story of Cleopatra, as told by her half-sister and advisor, Charmian, to the gods. The author’s note said all surviving stories of Cleopatra are from the Roman conquerors. Here, Charmian, Cleopatra, and half-sister Iras are a trio who, at a young age, ask Isis to make Cleopatra Pharaoh so they can serve all of Egypt better, whereupon she appears to all of them in different aspects and agrees. The gods are therefore important and real, but Alexandria is intellectual enough that Charmian hides her dreams, even when they appear to come true. Charmian and several other key characters are reincarnations of people who in past lives were Companions to other charismatic and important rulers – Alexander the Great, for sure, and Arthur is also alluded to. One of these stories is told in her previous novel, Black Ships. Still, Cleopatra’s story is plenty entertaining on its own, as she starts fourth or fifth in line for the throne, and works her way up as her various siblings kill each other off or die of plague. The country she finally inherits is fractured along the lines of old Egypt and the Hellenistic coast and laden with the burden of a too-large debt to Rome for previous aid. There’s friendship with a young local scholar, and balancing romance and the call of extreme duty. Charmian grows from a mischievous slave girl into Cleopatra’s advisor and event planner, creating the magic behind Cleopatra’s mystique.

Quibbles: We have a trio of women running the country, serving a goddess, yet all of the many births are attended by male doctors. No midwives in all of Egypt? As far as I’ve researched, giving birth attended by a male doctor is a quite recent phenomenon. Another – the included glossary does not distinguish between the many real, historical characters and some that were probably made up for the book, such as Charmian’s blond slave mother or her Jewish and gay best friend. It’s disappointing both because I’d really like to know where the line between fiction and history is and because the book seems otherwise very carefully researched. She does say in the author’s note that all of the technology mentioned – steam engines, etc. – are absolutely historically correct.

All in all though, this is wonderful book, fascinating on its own as a story of women making their way in a male world, of political intrigue, and a look into a time of learning and tolerance that died with Cleopatra. I look forward to reading Graham’s other books.


Jan. 21st, 2009 11:28 am
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We seem to be having an accidental foray into early America. From Philadelphia to Boston, then.

book coverBlindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore Our story here is told by two separate narrators. The first is a disgraced and indebted Scottish painter by the name of Stewart Jameson. He is fleeing Edinburgh, both the debt collectors and in search of his friend, Ignatius Alexander. Jameson tells us, the Dear Reader, that Alexander is an African-born, British educated doctor, but not how or why they were separated. Jameson hopes both to find his friend and earn the money to repay his debt in Boston. Meanwhile, Fanny Easton writes letters to a former schoolmate telling her plans to escape the Manufactory. She is the daughter of one of a judge, but she was disowned and thrown out of the house after her art tutor impregnated her. Now she has seen Jameson’s advertisement in the paper looking for an apprentice and decides to disguise herself as a boy, Francis Weston, to take the job. Then, Samuel Bradstreet, prominent citizen, revolutionary and early abolitionist is murdered, found dead just after sitting for his portrait. Jameson and Weston are key witnesses. Suspected are Bradstreet’s slaves, whose verbal promise to free them on his death is all the evidence the court really seems to want. But one of the slaves recognizes Fanny and asks for help, and she, as a guilty former owner, feels obliged to help. Early revolutionary and racial politics, intrigue and a whole lot of gender-bending sexual tension make this a fascinating and page-turning historical. The authors are both historians; some notes on the accuracy of the piece are included in book, and more on their website.
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I don’t read a whole lot of litblogs, but one of the few that I do is . Colleen wrote such a glowing review of this book that I asked our teen librarian to buy a copy when I saw we didn’t have one.* Now I’ll see if I can do the book justice.
*Library Note #7: You don’t have to be a librarian to do this. There’s probably even a link on your library home page to ask for a book to be purchased or interloaned for you.

book coverThe Explosionist by Jenny Davidson Edinburgh, late 1930s. The world is on the brink of a second world war. Fifteen-year-old Sophie’s boarding school is shaken by the bombing attacks of rogue explosionists. (It took me most of the book to realize that Sophie herself was not going to become an explosionist. Whew.) In this world, Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo and Europe is divided into quite different countries – Scotland is not part of the United Kingdom but the New Hanseatic League. Spiritualism gained ground at the turn of the century, rather than fading out as it did in ours. You’ll notice that I found the setting fascinating, particularly as the differences between this world and ours are laid out in one place only in the author’s note at the back. But the setting sets off Sophie, a smart and thoughtful girl forced by the impending war to make important decisions about her future now. Very few girls are going to university, with many joining the military and the brightest and most beautiful going to join IRLYNS. IRLYNS (pronounced, irrationally but amusingly, irons) is a top-secret program which trains women to be the driving force to help high-placed men do great things in service to the country. The inequality of this, in a country where women do have high-ranking jobs, is very much an issue for Sophie, much as she wants to serve her country. Her daily life includes trying to hide a crush on her chemistry teacher, cutting gym class to have tea with the professor next door and his housekeeper’s visiting Danish nephew, Mikael, and attending her great-aunt’s regular séance. Then the medium from the séance is murdered, and Sophie starts hearing voices herself. Sophie and Mikael will both have to get over their distrust of spiritualism to solve the mystery, which might be linked to the war, but is definitely putting them at risk. You might not have time to think about the issues that are being raised while you’re racing to see if Sophie and Mikael make it through, but though the setting is historical, the issues are still blazingly relevant. This is a rare and delightful gem.
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book coverElijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis Christopher Paul Curtis, native of Flint, Michigan, is the king of taking a serious topic and telling a funny children’s story about it. In Bud, Not Buddy, for example, he tells the story of a black, motherless boy hitchhiking across Michigan during the Depression. If you were looking for a cheerful story, you might just turn the other way after reading that description. And you would be very wrong. It is a book to make you laugh out loud, even though the tough realities of the Depression are still there. Yes, it won the Newbery, and it deserved it.

But here we’re talking about Elijah of Buxton. Elijah is the first free-born child in the town of Buxton, Ontario, a refuge for runaway slaves. Elijah is a mischievous boy who tells the stories of his pranks in colloquial language. I expect I’ll want to listen to it soon, too, as the narration style would make for a great listening book with the right reader. The anecdotes, filled with the colorful characters and details of life in the town, build slowly in intensity. Then, the details that seemed unconnected come together, as Elijah finds himself crossing the border to the United States in pursuit of a thief who has stolen the funds meant to buy the freedom of an entire family. Still, the story is funny through most of the book, moving, captivating. I was left in awe of Christopher Paul Curtis once again.
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Could I resist a book about the travels of a beautiful illuminated book? No, I couldn’t.

book cover People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks It’s 1996. Hanna Heath is a young Australian book conservator, asked to work on the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. This book, which really exists, tells the story of Passover, and is a very rare example of a Jewish illuminated book. As Hannah takes apart the book to remove its horrid nineteenth century binding and examines all its pages, she finds various artifacts in it – a white hair, a butterfly wing, a red stain, and salt. Hanna’s journey around the world to find out what these things are is interspersed with the stories of how the artifacts came to be there and the people of all three monotheistic religions who cared for the book over the centuries. There’s a reason this book has been a bestseller – it’s got good characters, fascinating settings around the world and through history, and a compelling plot.


Jun. 4th, 2008 12:10 pm
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I've been a fan of Donna Jo Napoli's since her enchanting retelling of Rapunzel, Zel, which I read in my children's lit class. Here's her latest:

book coverHush by Donna Jo Napoli Melkorka has been raised princess of a small kingdom in Ireland. While the priest tries to convince her father to outlaw slavery, she has always looked down on slaves and believed slavery necessary and permanent. Then she and her little sister, Bridget, are kidnapped. They are taken on board a Russian slave ship and soon far beyond anything Melkorka has ever seen. Her mother had told her often that she needed to learn to hush; and, when they were riding off secretly to hopeful safety, not to tell anyone who she is. So Mel hushes, using silence as both sword and shield. This isn’t exactly a beach read, nor, with its stark depiction of slavery and rape, is it for young children. For teens and up, though, it’s a moving story. Mel’s difficult personal journey is balanced with the excitement of exploring the known world of A.D. 900. An author’s note at the end explains that this is her back story for a princess Melkorka who is mentioned briefly in an ancient saga of Iceland.
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Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer Jack is a poor Saxon farm boy when the Bard chooses him to be his apprentice. He's learning to pay close attention to everything and feel the Life Force. Then the Bard senses ships coming. A lone monk stumbles into the village from the Holy Isle, raving that berserkers destroyed the whole island, burning the books and killing the monks and nuns. This is the pebble in the pond. The villagers all hide, except for Jack's little sister, Lucy. She is convinced that she is really a princess, and that the raiders are knights come to take her to the king and queen. Jack follows – and both of them are captives on the Northmen's raiding ship. They are being taken back to the kingdom of Ivar the Boneless, whose half-troll wife, Frith, has been trying to kill the Bard. Lucy is intended as a gift for Frith, and Frith intends to sacrifice her to the goddess Freya. The only way for Jack to save her is to journey to Jotunheim, the Kingdom of Trolls. The great Olaf One-Brow and the ornery young shield maiden Thorgill, as well as a crow who found their ship in the middle of the ocean, come to help Jack on his quest.

Once again, Nancy Farmer delivers with a tale of adventure stirring enough to keep indifferent readers hooked which nonetheless has deep levels of meaning. Jack learns to respect his captors, even as he is horrified at their violence, the pride they take in going berserk and their hope to die in battle. He was raised a Christian, yet trained as a Bard to do magic, and meets the deities of other religions over the course of his quest. Over and over again, Jack sees the beauty in all life – even life he's been taught to fear – and still knows that they must remain enemies. The book is also set firmly in period just following the historical destruction of the Island of Lindisfarne, and the fantasy elements are all drawn directly from the myths of the period. As a stranger, Jack is good at noticing the Northmen's ways, making it a good introduction to the period for anyone. It may not be straight history as we'd see it now, but it's certainly a tale that people from the time would have felt as true, which is even better.
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The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig Eloise is a Harvard graduate student, writing her dissertation on English spies in France after the Revolution. She's in England, worming her way into old family archives to find the truth behind spies who, unlike the Scarlet Pimpernel, were never unmasked during their lifetime. Her modern-day dilemmas are the frame for the story of the spies she's researching. In this second book of the series, our spies are Lady Henrietta Selwick and Lord Miles Dorrington. They are under great suspicion from France, as they are the little sister and best friend of Lord Richard Selwick, formerly the Purple Gentian. Either one of them could be or could lead the French to the Pink Carnation, the subject of the first book. In fact, the Pink Carnation is trying to get word to them that France has unleashed its deadliest assassin, the Black Tulip, on England. Both Hen and Miles are eager to help the Pink Carnation discover the identity of the Black Tulip. Miles is struggling with the realization that Henrietta is prettier than ever – and strictly off limits. It is equal parts intrigue and romance, with each cropping up at inconvenient moments for the other. The author, herself a Harvard graduate student, pays attention to historical accuracy, with a note at the back to explain where and why she changed things. This is delicious fun.
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In all fairness, my teen librarian recommended this book to me when it first came out. I finally checked it out, though, when [ profile] robinmckinley said she was buying it for everyone on her Christmas list. (Yes, it took me six weeks to listen to it… why do you ask?)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Read by Alan Corduner It is Germany, early in World War II. Our narrator is Death. He introduces us to our heroine, Liesel Memminger, when he first meets her. She is on the train on her way to a foster home with her mother and brother, except that her brother dies on the train. At the graveyard where they stop to bury him, she steals her first book: a gravedigger’s manual that the apprentice gravedigger dropped in the snow. It takes time to make a new home, but Liesel slowly begins to fit into her new family on Himmel Street, the poor section of a small town outside Munich. Her new Mama may call her a Saumensch, but her Papa has kind silver eyes and plays a mean accordion. Rudy, the boy next door, has hair the color of lemons and a developing crush on her. Soon her circle of friends expands to include Max, a young Jewish man that they hide in their basement. Papa, barely literate himself, teaches Liesel to read. She plays soccer on the street and steals food and books with Rudy as food rations get tighter and she runs out of books to read. It is only a side note as Death notes the passing of the years and complains about the increasing number of souls that he is expected to ferry away, as we are so involved with daily life on Himmel Street.

Towards the end of the book, Rudy is in his living room building a gigantic domino structure with his younger sisters. He is trying to eavesdrop as his parents, in the kitchen, argue with the SS officers, who want to send Rudy to a special Hitler Youth school. The children have filled the room with dominoes, snaking from all around the room to a central point. Rudy turns out the lights and lights a match as the whole structure comes toppling down. And, just like that, the strands of plot that we were contentedly watching come together and we remember that things do not end happily in Nazi Germany. Even though this was the point where I couldn’t sleep for four hours one night, the book is not a thriller. Death knows what’s coming, and lets us know, a little at a time. He is a careful observer of humanity, and describes things in beautiful and original language. The people and places of Germany are perfectly described. In the audio book, Alan Corduner’s deep, slightly British voice is perfect for Death. He appears to be fluent in German, as well, pronouncing the German words perfectly and giving the characters authentic German accents together with unique character voices. This is a truly beautiful book.


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