Tag Archives: historical

The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari

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The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari
Walden Pond, 2019.

There’s been something missing in 12 year-old Charlie O’Reilly’s life for the last year: his younger brother, Liam. But, bizarrely, no-one else remembers Liam – not his parents, no-one at school, and not even his best friend, Ana, though she, alone, believes Charlie. But since Liam disappeared, his mother has sunk into a deep depression and his father never seems to be at home. It’s only when Charlie and Ana talk to the new assistant baseball coach that they start to find out what might have happened to Liam.

This intriguing debut middle grade novel weaves in elements of fantasy and the supernatural into an ingenious plot, full of surprises and discoveries. Even Charlie’s vivid nightmares, about an Irish family migrating to America because of the potato famine, eventually slot into place.

Themes of loss, regret, and forgiveness are handled sensitively if sometimes a little didactically, as thoughtful, persistent Charlie balanced by brave action-focused Ana – like all major characters they appear to be white – pursues the mystery of what has happened to Liam.

As Charlie learns that life is often painful and messy, he appreciates that without that, there can also be no joy. Ideal for readers who are ready to take on that understanding.

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Lovely War by Julie Berry

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Lovely War by Julie Berry
Viking, 2018

A gorgeous and lush YA romance set during World War I is framed by a quarrel between the Greek gods representing the novel’s big themes of love, war, art, and death.

When James Aldridge meets piano playing Hazel Windicot at a parish dance, they have only a few days together before he leaves for the front. They are both terribly British: shy and innocent, reticent yet thrumming with interior emotions. They have tea, stroll through parks, and go to a concert, and though they have never even kissed, it’s clear that theirs is a love for the ages.

As James is whisked off to the trenches, Hazel signs up to entertain the troops in France. There she meets up with Belgian Colette Fournier, who has survived a German massacre of her town in which all her friends and family were slaughtered. Through these two women we get to see the confining sexism of the times – neither British nor Belgian women got the vote till after the war, but it’s more the social and cultural norms that chafe here.

They both get to know Aubrey Evans, a black musician (all other main characters are white) who plays with real-life Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry ragtime band aka the Hellfighters. Through Aubrey we see the horrific bigotry that the black soldiers faced from their compatriots. As Aubrey and Colette begin to fall in love, there are warning signs that an interracial romance will be a grenade lobbed into the rigid propriety and attitudes of their “superiors”, so when Aubrey disappears, Colette and Hazel fear the worst.

Both epic and intimate, the novel contrasts the minutely detailed horrors of the trenches with the exquisite intensity of love, particularly during an enchanting interlude when Hazel and James meet in Paris. None of the protagonists are unscathed by the war but, like me, I think many readers will be swept away by the glorious story and the message that, in the end, love conquers war and death.

Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli

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Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli
Yellow Jacket, 2018.

There were two historical novels on the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist and they ended up at the bottom of our list – not because they weren’t good, but because we felt that the genre just lacks appeal to many middle grade readers. Skylark and Wallcreeper mixes past and present to interesting effect, whereas Anne Nesbet’s The Orphan Band of Springdale is set wholly in the past. I have enjoyed Ms Nesbet’s books in the past, particularly Cloud and Wallfish but also her earlier fantasies, and I read this one a while ago but did not take sufficient notes for me to write a review. Sorry. Anyway onto a book that I did take notes on.

In 2012, 12yo Lily helps to move her granny, Collette, and the other residents when they are evacuated to the Brooklyn Armory as Superstorm Sandy wreaks havoc on their nursing home in Queens. In the confusion of the move and settling in, Lily loses a fountain pen that is mysteriously precious to her granny and goes in search of it. In a second storyline, Collette is a 12yo in Brume, Southern France, in the final years of World War II and is an active member of the French Resistance.

Parallels can easily be drawn between the two protagonists. They are both persistent, resourceful, independent, and spunky, doing whatever it takes to achieve their goals, though clearly there is a lot more actual danger to Colette. They even look alike, with short hair, as they bicycle around their neighborhoods. Both stories are set in emergency situations in which these young girls are at liberty to make decisions and take actions that they would not normally be able to. Neither girl is given much background or context, though we learn more about Lily’s regular life than Colette’s.

Colette’s chapters are a series of vignettes of her Resistance missions, from the time she is first recruited into “Noah’s Ark” as Wallcreeper. She meets Marguerite, aka Skylark, and together they undertake deliveries, sending messages, and spying, right up to their derailing of a German train. While exciting, this lack of background makes Collette less of a fully-developed character.

Particularly notable is Lily’s empathy and kindness to the dementia-inflicted Colette and the other elderly nursing home residents. But she (and the author) are clear-eyed about these seniors – they are not the cute and funny characters of many books and movies – but are nonetheless regular people with a million stories to tell. However, Lily’s pursuit of the fountain pen is rather forced and there’s an overabundance of coincidences leading to the satisfying conclusion.

Though historical novels can be a tough sell to kids, particularly ones that are not rooted in their own history, they might find the idea of the Resistance has contemporary parallels. The author carefully explains the repugnance felt towards collaborators, and the particular contempt felt towards the Milice, the French military police that supported the Germans. There’s not much light and shade here: the Resistance is good and the collaborators were bad.

I’m not sure how much kid appeal Wallcreeper actually has, and this is not helped by being printed in a large font, making the size of the book potentially quite daunting. However, those who like historical fiction, strong girl characters, and/or exciting adventures will find something to enjoy here.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

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Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Scholastic, 2018.

Week three of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist. Front Desk was my personal number two and was well-liked by some but not all of the other judges.

It’s 1993 and 10-year old Mia Tang and her parents moved from China to the US two years ago. It has not been what they expected: “My parents had told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburger till we were red in the face.” Now they are managing the Calivista Motel in Orange County for the despotic Mr Yao and, apart from the occasional shared burger, none of their dreams have been fulfilled.

Mia takes on managing the front desk, learning from her mistakes as she goes along. She and her parents work hard but the abusive owner allows them barely enough to scrape by on. As one of the few Chinese kids at her new school, Mia has to face bullies and uncomprehending teachers. Even her mother is unsupportive, telling her she should focus on math as she can be a native at that but not at the English writing that Mia loves.

Mia is a go-getting optimist with a kind heart and a strong sense of justice. As her confidence grows and her natural abilities flourish, she starts to writes letters to help set things right – whether for African American Hank, one of the motel’s “weeklies”, for some of the Chinese immigrants that her parents secretly shelter at the motel, or to counter a racist policy adopted by local motels and stores.

Drawing on the author’s own childhood experiences, this novel looks at the important topics of poverty, racism, and the oppression and exploitation that prevents people from breaking out of the cycles they’re stuck in, but does so with a light hand and integrated into a charming and empowering story. Though the ending trails off a little into fantasy, middle grade readers will feel that Mia is rewarded for all that she has endured and for all that she has done to make her community a better place.

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

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The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
Levine, 2018.

So I have spent the weeks since the beginning of the year reading and judging middle grade fiction for the Cybils awards. It was very satisfying: I read some terrific novels and had some interesting discussions. In the end, our choice came down to two novels and I’m thrilled that my top choice, The Parker Inheritance, won out. That’s today’s review and over the next few weeks I’ll post about the other books. In case you’re interested, here is the link to the full list of Cybil award winners.

12-year-old Candice is spending a “horrible summer” in Lambert, South Carolina as her home in Atlanta is being remodeled prior to being sold after her parents separate. She and her mother are staying in the home of her beloved grandmother, who died two years ago, and while clearing out the attic, Candice finds a letter addressed to her grandmother that offers the opportunity of finding $40 million by solving “a puzzle mystery that will take you deep into the city’s past.”

As Candice and her new friend Brandon (both brown-skinned like the majority of characters in the book) try and work out the clues that will lead them to the treasure, they uncover the Jim Crow past of Lambert, particularly an incident involving a tennis match and the African American Washington family.

With twin themes of “Just because you don’t see the path doesn’t mean it’s not there” and “We hear what we want to hear. We see what we want to see,” Inheritance covers a lot of ground about prejudice both past and present. So here’s a list of the topics the novel explores: sexism, gender roles and labelling, homophobia, racism, segregation, police violence against Black people, Jim Crow, passing, miscegenation. There may well be more but those are the ones that immediately came to my mind. These are all woven organically into a terrifically absorbing mystery as Candice and Brandon try to crack the puzzle which is really well worked through, and the elements that the kids take on can also be solved by the reader (albeit a very smart one).

The characters are vividly created – not just our main two protagonists but all the support ones, and the author gives them all some complexity and nuance. Though there are some out and out villains, those on the side of good, adults and kids alike, are not perfect but recognize their slips. The South Caroline setting, both past and present, is powerfully evoked and the Jim Crow era is strikingly brought to life through both Candice and Brandon’s research and the chapters set then that are interspersed throughout the book.

This book is the real deal and a thoroughly deserving winner. It covers so many important issues without making them “issues,” and fully integrates them into an engaging and thought provoking novel.

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

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Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Dutton, 2018

Set in 17th century Rome, this harrowing and deeply emotional novel in verse is a fictionalized account of the early life of painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Her art is sold under her father’s name as no-one accepts that a woman can paint, but since her mother died, her father, resentful of her superior talent, is distant and harsh. So Artemisia is thrilled when Agostino Tassi is hired to tutor her, and it seems there might be a romantic attraction between them. But Tino is really a predator and rapes her.

Artemisia’s narrative verse is tight and focused when she is describing her painting, shatters during her ordeal, and is jagged with her suppressed fury at the inequity of her position.

Woven throughout are her mother’s stories of Susanna and Judith, biblical women who stood up to the oppression of men, and these women become figures of strength for Artemisia during the trial after her assault. She is able to find an outlet for her rage at the patriarchy and through painting them with her unique perspective.

The novel is adapted from the author’s play and an afterword gives some biographical information about Artemisia. Inexplicably it excludes the full story of her later professional and personal success, which I think does a disservice to readers who are likely not aware of the full story. Or maybe Ms McCullough is saving it for a sequel.

Includes resources for victims of sexual assault.

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

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I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
CarolRhoda Lab, 2018.

So I’m of an age that I watched the BBC series of I, Claudius when it was first on TV and thrilled the nation. And Ms McCoy has taken that story and set it in an elite private high school and it works really well. As an examination of the use and abuse of power, the shenanigans of the over-privileged and entitled students of the Imperial Day School fits perfectly.

Claudia McCarthy (oh what fun Ms McCoy has with her characters names) is a freshman with a limp and a stutter, and just wants to fade into the background. But her popular and well-liked sister Maisie brings her into the inner circle of the Honor Council with its current President Augustus Dean and his girlfriend Livia Drusus. Students are expelled or graduate, rather than the more gruesome ends they suffered in Robert Graves’s classic, as, over the years, the Honor Council presidency moves from Augustus to Ty and finally to Cal Hurt’s reign of terror (see what I mean about names – Caligula was played by John Hurt in the TV series).

Claudia herself is a fantastic creation. Not particularly likable and thoroughly unreliable about her own motives as she rises through the ranks of the school’s Senate with her crush the virtuous Hector, Claudia is unrepentant and pugnacious. She is telling her story, apparently to a therapist, as we accompany her through the school’s descent into wild decadence.

Really, this was just an absolutely terrific read and I was inspired to read I, Claudius to see if I could spot more connections. What I found was that Ms. McCoy and the BBC scriptwriters had sensibly focused on the spine of the story, whereas Grave’s Claudius chronicles every name and relationship to the point of my utmost confusion and, sadly, indifference. So hooray for Mary McCoy taking inspiration and then setting off with it on a wildly entertaining novel.