Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

Lost Boys chronicles the Iran-Iraq War through a boy soldier’s eyes

Lost Boys, by Darcey Rosenblatt, (Aug. 2017, Henry Holt & Co), $16.99, ISBN: 9781627797580

Recommended for readers 9-14

Twelve year-old Reza is a musical prodigy living in 1982 Iran. He lives with his widowed, fundamentalist mother, and craves visits from his Uncle Habib; a member of the resistance, he also encourages Reza’s love of music by slipping him cassettes of artists from Stevie Wonder to Thelonious Monk. His mother pushes him to join the war effort, telling him she would be proud to have her son die in service of Allah. Reza wants nothing to do with the conflict, but when his uncle is killed and his best friend, Ebi, signs up to serve, Reza feels he has nothing left without his best friend, and signs on. He and Ebi receive their “keys to heaven” – plastic keys that serve as symbols that they will achieve paradise when they die in service to Iran and the Ayatollah – and are sent into battle. War is not the glorious battle that Ebi dreamed about; it’s not full of exciting moments like he and Reza have seen in the movies. The boys are fodder for the minefields – tied together and sent into battle to clear the way for older troops. Reza is injured and sent to a prisoner of war camp, where he meets other boys his age and desperately tries to learn Ebi’s fate as he endures abuse at the hands of a sadistic prison guard.

I couldn’t put Lost Boys down, choosing instead to disregard my normal sleep schedule until I finished the last page. Reza is a heart-achingly real character based on far too many child soldiers. He and his classmates are promised glory and fed lies; in the end, all he lives for is the hope that he’ll be reunited with his best friend and live to enjoy music again. Set in 1982, the story is more relevant now than ever, as children are still pressed into service all over the world. Booktalk Lost Boys with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis for tween and teen readers; booktalk with Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine to illustrate the worldwide epidemic of using children as combatants. This article from Global Citizen shines a light on seven countries that still use child soldiers, and what we can do to help stand against the practice.

Lost Boys is an important book that sparks outrage and empathy, and is a must-add for collections. I’d love to see this on next summer’s reading lists.

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

Mari’s Hope brings Odin’s Promise to a beautiful close

Mari’s Hope, by Sandy Brehl (Sept. 2017, Crispin Books), $14.95, ISBN: 978-1-883953-89-8

Recommended for readers 9-12

The conclusion of Sandy Brehl’s Odin’s Promise trilogy is finally here! Mari’s Hope continues the story of Mari, a Norwegian girl living under the German occupation during World War II. Mari, who was 11 when the story began, is approaching age 14 when the latest book begins. Her family is active in the resistance, and Mari’s involvement increases as she is older now, willing and able to take greater risks. She works with the local doctor to care for the sick and elderly in her village, Ytres Arna; travels to the city of Bergen to procure more medicine – and information – for her village, and tries to stay out of the way of the Nazi officers who live in her home; particularly the one she calls Goatman, who is a drunk and a thief.

Written in third-person narrative with first-person journal entries from Mari to her brother, Bjorn, Mari’s Hope is written with the same gentle strength as the previous two entries in the series. We see Mari grow over the three books from girl to young woman – a change that has come too quickly under the occupation – and deal not only with being a member of the Norwegian resistance, but with the stress of worrying about her brother; grieving her dog, Odin, killed by Nazi soldiers in the first book; struggling with a former friend who threw in his lot with the NS – Nasjonal Samling – Norway’s version of Hitler Youth. The family and neighbors stick together, sharing what little they have to provide for one another, whether it’s to have a birthday party for Mari or a holiday dinner for Jul. There are tense moments that kept me turning pages, sometimes biting my lip with concern, and there are moments where I just needed a moment to process my relief. Sandy Brehl never whitewashes the German’s devastation; rather, she states it quietly, eloquently, and leaves it there for Mari – and us – to process and move on.

The Odin’s Promise trilogy is a gorgeously written series of books that take us into a part of World War II history we don’t often hear about. Hitler invaded Norway with the lie that he was sending soliders to “protect” his “Viking brothers”, but proceeded to strip all freedoms from them and tried to supersede his vision of Aryan superiority over their rich culture. Odin’s Promise, Bjorn’s Gift, and Mari’s Hope tell this story through the experiences of one village, one family, one girl, who pushed back. I love spending time with Mari and her family; while I’m sad to see this story end, the beauty of books lies in knowing I can meet them again whenever I want to.

Odin’s Promise received the 2014 Midwest Book Award for Children’s Fiction. It was also noted as one of A Mighty Girl’s Best Girl-Empowering Books of 2014 and one of Foreword Magazine’s Ten Best Indie Middle Grade Novels of 2014.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen

Radium Girls meets YA fiction with Glow

Glow, by Megan E. Bryant, (Sept. 2017, Albert Whitman), $16.99, ISBN: 9780807529638

Recommended for readers 12+

Julie should be starting college in the fall, but she used up all her savings to bail her mother out of debt. Frustrated and embarrassed, especially when her friend drops money on crazy shopping trips while Julie counts every cent. They wander into a thrift store where Julie discovers an antique painting that reveals a hidden, glowing image in the dark. Locating the rest of the paintings becomes Julie’s obsession; as she tracks down the paintings and the painter’s identity, she discovers that the paintings were made by and tell the story of the Radium Girls – young women who worked in factories, using radium paint to make glow-in-the-dark watches for the soldiers in the trenches of World War I.

The dual narrative keeps the novel moving at a fast pace, but it is Liza and Lydia’s story – the Radium Girls – that gripped me even more than Julie’s. If you haven’t yet read Kate Moore’s Radium Girls, I highly recommend it; the story of the women who were slowly poisoned over time is heartbreaking and infuriating, but so important to read and know. Glow is a great introduction to the subject on a middle school/YA level; the letters from Lydia to her betrothed, Walter, a World War I soldier, give readers the full horror of radium poisoning. These girls – some as young as 13 – were led to believe that the radium paint was safe, even beneficial – one floor manager brags about mixing some into his pudding for health reasons; girls paint their nails, their faces, even paint jewelry on their bodies before they go out on dates. Hindsight, for the reader, is 20/20; I wanted to shriek at them as Lydia described each detail.

That said, there are some moments I felt could have been stronger. I didn’t love the romance that felt pushed into the narrative to make it more attractive to teen readers, and the subplot tension between Julie and her mother feels like it’s there just to make readers understand why Julie would be shopping in thrift stores. The driving story here is Lydia and Liza’s story, though; that’s what will stay with you long after the story has ended and you’ve closed the book. An author’s note at the end talks about the Radium Girls and the indignities they suffered when they became ill and tried to come forward.

This one is going on the shelves at my library, and I’ve already told my son’s girlfriend that she has to read it the second it hits shelves. Glow has a powerful, heartbreaking story at its core that you should not miss.
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.