Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

One for Sorrow mixes ghost stories with historical fiction

One for Sorrow, by Mary Downing Hahn, (July 2017, Clarion Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9780544818095

Recommended for ages 10-14

Annie is the new girl at her school. Desperate to make new friends, she’s thwarted when the school pariah, Ellie, latches onto her on the first day. Annie quickly discovers that there’s a reason the other girls don’t like Ellie: she’s a liar, a tattletale, and a thief who bullies her way into Annie’s life. When Ellie is out sick for a few days, Annie manages to befriend the other girls at school and becomes one of Ellie’s tormentors. When the 1918 flu epidemic reaches Annie’s town, it claims Ellie as one of its victims, but Ellie’s spirit won’t rest. She returns as a vengeful ghost, punishing all the girls who bullied her through Annie, thus ensuring that Annie will be as hated as Ellie was in her lifetime.

Mary Downing Hahn is one of the reigning queens of middle grade horror. I still can’t look at a doll in the same way after reading Took (2015), and she’s the first author I go to when my library kids ask me for a good, scary story. One for Sorrow, inspired by the 19th century nursery rhyme, seamlessly blends elements of an intense ghost story with historical fiction. Hahn addresses World War I and anti-German sentiment and the 1918 flu epidemic in a small American town while drawing on her own mother’s childhood for inspiration, having her characters visit various homes with funereal wreaths on the door in order to eat their fill of sweets and pastries put out for the wakes. Ellie’s vicious haunting will keep readers turning pages late into the night, feeling Annie’s helpless frustration as Ellie systematically destroys her reputation and her life.

 

Mary Downing Hahn has won many awards for her writing. You can find out more about her (like the fact that she’s a former children’s librarian!), her books, and her awards, through her publisher’s website.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

The Gray Twins reunite in The Whispers in the Walls

Scarlet and Ivy: The Whispers in the Walls, by Sophie Cleverly, (May 2017, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $7.99, ISBN: 9781492634065

Recommended for readers 8-12

When we left Ivy Gray at the dismal Rookwood School, she had just found her lost twin, Scarlet; hidden away in an asylum by the tyrannical headmistress, who told her family that Scarlet was dead. Masquerading as Scarlet, Ivy attended Rookwood and discovered the truth about a great many secrets. The Whispers in the Walls picks up just as Ivy reunites with Scarlet and they go home, only to have their spineless father and cruel stepmother send the two girls back. Back to the school that hid one daughter in an asylum and lie about her death. Their father drops them off with a “But it’s different now, it’s still a very good school with a new headmaster”, and has the nerve to tell them he loves them after that, securing a Father of the Year award sometime in the future, I’m sure.

Things aren’t wonderful back at Rookwood. Penny, Scarlet and Ivy’s tormenting nemesis, is still there, and she’s worse than ever. Violet, Penny’s best friend, and bullying accomplice, the girl who was also hidden away at the same asylum, is sent back to Rookwood, but is quiet, withdrawn, and now rooming with Ariadne. Scarlet is insufferable to such a degree, Ivy finds herself distancing from her twin. The headmaster, the sinister Mr. Bartholomew, is a fanatical disciplinarian whose punishments go beyond reason.

The girls are thrown back into this maelstrom, with most of the student body none the wiser. But there are new secrets discovered at Rookwood; secrets about Mr. Bartholomew himself; a secret group of students from the past that may include Scarlet and Ivy’s mother, and another girl rescued from the asylum, hiding in the school.

The Whispers in the Walls is a good follow-up to The Lost Twin, but Scarlet is nearly insufferable. She’s difficult for the mere sake of being difficult, and may put off readers as much as she does her twin sister. Ivy remains a strong character who continues developing through the story; I hope she rubs off on Scarlet for future adventures. The new headmaster, Mr. Bartholomew, continues the tradition of awful school management – Rookwood seems set to go through headmasters and headmistresses like Hogwarts goes through Defense of the Dark Arts professors. There are several story threads presented in The Whispers in the Walls, only a couple of which are resolved; I’m looking forward to seeing where the third book takes us.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Regency romance and mystery: Duels & Deception

Duels & Deception, by Cindy Anstey, (Apr. 2017, Macmillan/Swoon Reads), $10.99, ISBN: 9781250119094

Recommended for readers 12+

It’s 1817, and Lydia Whitfield is an English society heiress with her future planned out for her – even her marriage partner is planned for her, thanks to her departed father. She will run the family estate until her marriage, when Lord Aldershot, her intended, will take over the day to day work. Until then, her drunkard uncle and his unbearable wife and daughters are living at Roseberry Hall with Lydia and her mother. She wants to be free of her meddling uncle, so she contacts Mr. Robert Newton, a law clerk, to begin drawing up marriage contracts, and everything seems to be progressing nicely. Until Lydia is kidnapped!

Lydia is taken as she’s about to meet with Mr. Newton regarding the contracts, and he ends up a victim of circumstance; first kidnapped with her, then rudely thrown out of the coach. But the kidnappers aren’t very thorough, and make it way too easy for Lydia to escape (with Robert’s help). Lydia starts wondering if the kidnapping had far deeper motives than a ransom, and Mr. Newton is too happy to help her investigate. After all, it keeps him close to Lydia, who he finds himself falling for… and she feels the same about him. Can the two get to the bottom of the plot and work through their feelings for one another while maintaining a sense of propriety?

Duels & Deception is a fun mix of proper Regency romance and a complex whodunit. The kidnapping comes with an interesting twist that stands out, and the main characters engage in witty, flirty banter that is sweet and funny. I did struggle with the pace of the novel at times, but overall, romance and historical fiction fans will enjoy this one. A glossary and discussion questions round out the book.

Duels & Deception was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s 35 Most Anticipated YA Novels of 2017 and received a starred review from Voya magazine. Add Cindy Anstey’s previous historical romance, Love, Lies & Spies to your booktalking list, and spice it up a little with some superpowers, courtesy of Tarun Shanker’s These Vicious Masks series.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Historical middle-grade fiction: Snakes and Stones

Snakes and Stones, by Lisa Fowler, (Nov. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 978-1-5107-1031-3

Recommended for readers 9-12

The year is 1921, and Chestnut Hill, a 12 year old girl, travels with her father and 7 year-old triplet siblings (also named after nuts) across the American south, putting on medicine shows so her daddy can sell his elixir. Daddy’s a snake oil merchant, and Chestnut is sick and tired of living in a cramped wagon, wearing clothes to rags, and going to bed with a rumbling stomach. She’s mad at Daddy from stealing her and her siblings away from their Mama, who must be out of her mind with grief right now. Even when the Hill family meets up with Abraham, a friend of her father’s, who tells her that there’s a lot Chestnut doesn’t know about her Daddy, she refuses to believe it and decides to take matters into her own hands, setting off a chain of events that will change her and her family.

I was happy to see a middle grade historical fiction piece take place in the early ’20s – it’s an interesting time that hasn’t seen a lot of middle grade storytelling just yet. Lisa Fowler has several strong characters here, most notably, Chestnut, who narrates the story. Her father is a seeming ne’er do well, a con man with a heart of gold, who just doesn’t know how to take care of his family; Abraham, an African-American character, allows for a look at the everyday racism and segregation in the South. Readers may get tired of Chestnut’s firm belief that her father’s the bad guy, especially when there’s clearly more to the story that Abraham knows but won’t discuss. While Abraham is a potentially strong character to highlight the racial issues in the Southern U.S., readers may be put off by the way his speech is written, which can be construed as negative stereotyping rather than striving for historical accuracy.

Overall, it’s a story that means well but gets caught up in melodrama and possibly troubling characterization.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Intermediate, Realistic Fiction

Rescuers play a Hiding Game with the Nazis

The Hiding Game, by hiding-game-coverGwen Strauss/Illustrated by Herb Leonhard, (Feb. 2017, Pelican Publishing), $17.99, ISBN: 9781455622658

Recommended for ages 7-10

A young girl and her family settle into a new home in the Villa Air-Bel in France. They’re used to hiding things: the radio, a cow, anything of value that the Nazis could seize. Aube Breton – the daughter Dada pioneer Andre Breton – even learns to hide herself in case of a raid. You see, Villa Air-Bel was a safe place for refugees during World War II, a place where those on the run could await passage to safety. Aude spends her days with luminaries like artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst; helping hold art sales to raise money for transport out of occupied France, and playing, as a child should.

A very different experience from Anne Frank and the families ensconced in the Secret Annex, Aude’s story is no less powerful. She witnesses a Nazi raid and hides while her father and other men are rounded up and taken in for questioning, and she faces her situation with love and laughter. The stories of the Villa Air-Bel refugees is a lesser-known part of World War II France, and The Hiding Game is a strong introduction to younger readers. Its message is as strong today as ever.

Herb Leonhard’s illustrations and subdued color palette are gentle on the eyes in some spreads, more powerful in others, enhancing the story with strong images that will lead to deep discussions with school-age readers.

hiding-game-layout-lowres-11-1

A historical note and further resources round out this story, and the author explains that her uncle was one of the men who risked his life to bring refugees to safety.

hiding-game-layout-lowres-17-1A recommended addition to history collections.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Historical Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade

Geronimo Stilton goes to the ends of the earth in his latest graphic novel adventure

geronimo-stiltonGeronimo Stilton #18: First to the Last Place on Earth, (Nov. 2016, Papercutz), $9.99, ISBN: 9781629916033

Recommended for ages 6-10

Journalist mouse and time traveler Geronimo Stilton’s latest adventure takes him and a group of friends (including his younger sister, Thea!) back to 1911, where they join explorer Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole. They have to beat the awful Pirate Cats, who plan to sabotage the expedition and ruin history, so Geronimo will need to stay extra sharp!

The Geronimo Stilton graphic novels are fun because they’re another addition to the Stilton family of storytelling. The stories are original – no rehashes of the chapter books here! – and offer kids some interesting facts mixed in with their fun. Geronimo is insanely popular, as are all his spinoff titles; your intermediate and middle grader readers will gobble these up. You won’t even need to booktalk this book – just put it out and stand back.

Want to use Geronimo to promote your exploration titles? I don’t blame you. Talk up Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition; Matthew Henson’s exploration of the North Pole, and the lost Franklin expedition of 1845. Nomad Press’ Mysteries and Mayhem: Survival is a good book to talk up, and the I Survived series will always get kids listening and reading.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult/New Adult

What makes a monster? Matthew J. Kirby explores in A Taste for Monsters

taste-for-monstersA Taste for Monsters, by Matthew J. Kirby, (Sept. 2016, Scholastic), $18.99, ISBN: 9780545817844

Recommended for ages 12+

Evelyn is a young woman left to fend for herself on the streets of Victorian London’s infamous East End. Orphaned and disfigured by her work in a matchstick factory, she seemingly has few prospects; she applies to London Hospital as a nurse, and is instead assigned to be the maid to the hospital’s most famous patient: Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. As she attends to Merrick, she finds a gentle, beautiful soul with whom she shares a love of Jane Austen, easy conversation, and sadly, pain.

And then the ghosts come. They visit nightly, terrifying Merrick and Evelyn, who stays with him to support him through the nightly terrors. Evelyn discovers that the ghosts are the restless spirits of women murdered by Jack the Ripper, whose work makes gruesome headlines. Evelyn takes it upon herself to help these spirits find peace so that they’ll leave Joseph alone, but are they really haunting him? And is Evelyn putting herself in the Ripper’s sights by getting involved?

This is my third Kirby book, and it’s safe to say I am hooked on his writing. His historical fiction places you right in the middle of the action, and his fantastic elements are so believable – especially in an age where spiritualists ran wild – that I had no problem believing that ghosts existed and sought out the kindness of a gentle man like Joseph Merrick. The character development is brilliant and complex; the characters had a depth to them that made we want to sit with them and share tea and conversation. There’s a thread of tension running through the book that will keep readers turning pages, whether it’s the tension between Evelyn and several key supporting characters in the novel, the tension of waiting for the spirits to arrive, and the gripping conclusion. Historical fiction fans that appreciate a touch of the supernatural will love this book; readers interested in the Jack the Ripper story or the Elephant Man will love this book. Conservative readers may shy away from some of the gory descriptions of the Ripper’s victims as read from the newspapers and sideshow attractions. There’s some excellent YA Ripper-related fiction available, including Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star; the graphic novel From Hell is another great booktalking and display choice. There is a children’s picture book about The Elephant Man by Mariangela Di Fiore that would be a good display choice. Get this book on your shelves and into hands.

Matthew J. Kirby is an Edgar Award-winning novelist.