A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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night dividedA Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, due out August 25, 2015.

I’m back from my summer hols in Norfolk and Barcelona and ready to blog. I read a bunch while I was away and have a substantial backlog of books to post about, so let’s get to it! This week turns out to be Jennifer A. Nielsen week. Later this week I’ll write about the second book in the Mark of the Thief series, and today I’m looking at her first venture away from fantasy adventure and into historical fiction.

This slightly leaden story of the Cold War is set in 1965 Berlin, which has been physically divided for four years. 12 year old Gerta’s family is also physically divided – her father and one brother are in the West and she, her mother, and other brother, Fritz, are in the East. Gerta longs for the freedom she believes she’ll find in the West and, after her father sends her an elaborate message, she and Fritz start digging a tunnel that will go under the Death Strip and the Wall and into West Berlin.

The novel initially plods along, much like the digging of the tunnel, and the siblings face and overcome one setback after another, but I became much more engaged in the outcome when the pace picks up as the pressure mounts on them to break through before the net closes around them.

Nielsen does a good job of capturing the oppressive regime in East Berlin, with citizens spying and informing on each other, and where the State feels it should be able to control what you think, do and say. Greta and family encounter the Stasi, the feared secret police, several chilling times.

Gerta is a spunky, obstinate protagonist who drives her family into this plan, preferring to take the risk for freedom than live a life dominated by fear and caution. Gerta finds herself lying, deceiving and betraying, but assures herself that it is justified by the potential end result.

Middle grade readers will learn about the Cold War and life in Eastern Berlin from an inside perspective, though more background and context notes along with suggested further reading would be helpful.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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the-scourgeThe Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2016.

I have really enjoyed The Mark of the Thief series, and quite liked, though not as much as many did, the historical fiction A Night Divided. But my favorite JAN by far is The False Prince, and I’m excited to say that The Scourge is almost as good in some ways and even better in that it’s a one-off!!!

Like The False Prince, the setting is an imaginary country in a sort of 16th/17th century. This time, the country is Keldan, with the population acrimoniously divided into town dwellers and the River People. The country is being ravaged by the Scourge, an incurable plague, which has so far only hit the towns. But when River People Ani and Weevil are picked up to be tested, it’s discovered that they are both infected and they are sent to Attic Island – a colony for Scourge sufferers that nobody ever leaves.

Ani is our narrator and is a typically feisty Nielsen protagonist – one who just can’t keep her mouth closed or her head down. Though not quite a female version of my beloved False Prince Sage/Jarod with his delicious snark and unreliability, it’s good to have a female action hero and one who can lead, as well as just get herself in and out of scrapes. Weevil (terrible name – sounds like a Disney sidekick) is the cooler headed of the two, and is also a love interest.

The plot rips along, and though I could see the big twist coming, it was a good one and well-executed. There is a balanced mix of tension and action, and the backdrop of the tension between the two Keldan cultures gives an interesting overlay of social injustice.

And did I say it all wraps up in one book? Hooray. The downside is that the support characters don’t really have room to develop, and it would be nice to have seen more of Della, the initially snooty townie sent to the colony with Ani.

This is JAN at her peak and I would happily press this into the hands of any middle school reader.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.