Tag Archives: historical

That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston
Dutton, 2017

This quirkily appealing alternate history imagines that the sun never set on the British Empire because Queen Victoria’s descendants married into the colonies, ensuring a “cosmopolitan, multiracial mosaic.” Now, two centuries on, a debut ball in Toronto brings together quiet and pragmatic white Helena, her Irish-Hong Kong Chinese unspoken intended August, and Margaret, with “brown skin, epicanthal folds” and a “curly dark mass” of hair.

Each of the three has a secret that will shape their futures: Margaret is actually the heir to the throne; August has got himself into legal and financial trouble; Helena learns that she has an XY chromosome and is intersex. How these three learn each other’s secrets and what they do with them makes for an entertaining and charming novel. However, I thought that Helena’s Big Reveal was somewhat muffled and its significance isn’t explained till much later.

The world the author has created is an intriguingly odd mash up of Victorian era dress and manners, present day technology, and scifi genetic matching and it is explicated through snippets of history at the start of chapters. I found the role of genetics, which is somehow under the purview of the Church, to be a little confusing and it was never entirely clear to me what connection Helena’s mother had with all of this.

Nonetheless, the author’s three lead characters are very well-crafted and it is their story and the unexpected ways in which their relationships develop that form the beating heart of the novel and while the setting is smart it takes a backseat to that. While I spent most of the novel assuming it was going to be a series because of the leisurely pace, a surprisingly quick and complete wrap-up suggests otherwise though I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel.

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye
First Second, July, 2017.

In this exuberant middle grade graphic adventure novel Lily Leanchops, a teenaged pig, makes an airplane that can fly without the use of magic and uses it when the Warthogs threaten to invade Pigdom Plains.

With a mix of science, magic, and myth, Abadzis’s (Laika, 2007) plot is a little long-winded as Lily finds out what is really motivating the Warthogs and attempts to prevent the attack on her homeland, but witty porcine wordplay, from place names including the Bay of Pigs and Piggadilly Circus to expressions like “Hogforsaken,” keeps the story entertaining.

With an Edwardian setting and character types, Dye’s illustrations, placed in a mostly conventional comic book layout, are colorful, energetic, and expressive and the lively near-human anthropomorphic pigs have a variety of skintones from pink to tan to dark brown.

Lily’s story arc, from being disbelieved by her father, the famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, to being the “Aerial Honker” that fights off the invaders, is somewhat conventional but gives the reader a determined and plucky protagonist to root for.

An unexpected last page twist sets up a sequel and leaves room for further exploration of this world.

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt, 2017

Heiligman (Charles and Emma, 2009) artfully lays out her magnificent biography of the Van Gogh brothers “as if you are walking through a museum show of their lives – a collection of paintings, drawings, and sketches.” This series of chronologically arranged vignettes, grouped into thematic “galleries,” is written in the present tense and illuminates the lives of Vincent and his younger brother Theo and their deep and intense relationship.

There are two touchstones which the author returns to several times. One is a conversation the teen brothers had on a walk together in 1872 in which they pledge that “they will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art.” She also uses as a central metaphor the idea of Vincent and Theo “carrying each other’s parcels.”

Drawing deeply on the plethora of letters from, to, and between the brothers (and recording this in detail in the endnotes), she follows them from their early years in rural Netherlands across Belgium, England and France, sometimes together, often apart. Echoing Vincent’s eclectic and evolving style, the author moves fluidly between sketches, impressions, and richly detailed portraits narrating the brothers’ friendships and romances, their mental and physical states, and the development of their work, showing how these are all fused together.

Theo (left) and Vincent

Though Vincent is the more famous one, she argues that without Theo’s support – financial, emotional, and professional – he would not have become the magnificent artist we know. Using black and white reproductions of ink drawings as illustrative “gallery” dividers and an insert of color prints of key paintings, the author connects Vincent’s life with his work and gives the reader an insight into his process and vision.

Ms Heiligman has succeeded in writing an intricate and layered biography that readers will enjoy both as a story of the complicated bond between two brothers and for the understanding that they gain into one of the world’s most renowned painters and his art.

Extensive backmatter also includes a list of people, a thorough timeline, sources, and index.

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
Scholastic, 2017.

This leaden World War II middle grade novel fails to bring to life an intriguing slice of history. 16 year-old Valya makes her way out of besieged Stalingrad and eventually joins up with the women aviators of the 588th Bomber Regiment – nicknamed the Night Witches by the Nazis. The flat present tense narration, laced with undigested dumps of historical information, generates little emotional connection with the characters. The action hurriedly tracks the Witches through the last four years of the war as the Russians drive the German Army out of their country, and the regiment’s constantly changing location would have been much easier to understand with a map. However, towards the end, there are two episodes – Valya’s crash-landing in enemy territory, and her rescue of her sister Tatyana from a prison camp – which, though somewhat lacking in credibility, are terrific stories that generate real tension. Irritatingly, there are no author’s notes or further sources on the Night Witches, so readers are on their own to sort out fact from fiction and to find out more about these young women fighter pilots or any of the other characters mentioned.

Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

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Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff
Candlewick, 2017.

Set in the early 20th century, this powerful, spare novel, written by Mal Peet and completed by Meg Rosoff after his death, centers on Beck who, with a long gone African father and dead white mother, finds himself at the mercy of a cruel system. Starved and mistreated at a Liverpudlian orphanage and then, at the age of 15, shipped to Canada where he is physically and sexually abused by the Christian Brotherhood before being given as slave labor to a farmer. Finally Beck takes his fate into his own hands and runs off, simply heading west with no purpose.

For much of the novel, Beck drifts and is a passive, somewhat detached presence. He yearns for something but cannot articulate what he wants until he sees it in others: love, family, home. His monochromatic lack of emotion is set against the rich glow of those who come to love him. Bone and Irma, a black couple involved in bootlegging, take him in and show him what love can look like. Then Grace, an older woman with Siksika mother and white father, finds him in a state of almost primal rebirth after a storm and takes him in. Their mutual desire stirs him deeply and confuses him and this relationship is the focal point of the novel.

Beck’s horrifying treatment by the priests, though limited in detail, and the realistically portrayed racism of the era make this book more suitable for older teen and adult readers.

Mal Peet died before he finished this novel and Meg Rosoff completed it. Afterwords from  Rosoff and Peet’s wife give few clues as to how the book was written, though Rosoff does tip her hat to Peet’s turn of phrase.

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Polaris by Michael Northrop

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Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017

Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.

On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.

The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.

The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.

Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy

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