Tag Archives: historical

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood

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The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood
Candlewick, 2018.

This is the second collection of feminist stories edited by Jessica Spotswood, following on from A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls. I don’t usually read short stories (and I haven’t read Tyranny) as I find the form a little unsatisfying but the title appealed and I picked the book up for review.

This collection of 12 stories focuses on young women on the cusp of making a significant change in their life and stepping away from what is expected, even demanded, from them; girls who are “radical in their communities.”

The stories all feature fictional girls but are set in historically accurate places across the US and in eras ranging from 1823 to 1984, and though a couple do have an element of fantasy they are rooted in the real world. There is a range of protagonists with diverse ethnicities, religions, abilities, and sexual preferences, but who all have in common the desire to follow their hearts and their intellects and break out of society or, as Spotswood puts it in her introduction, there is a “quiet badassery in girls taking charge of their own destinies.”

The majority of stories are about the catalyzing events that crystallize these desires and usually end with the young women preparing to make it happen. In endnotes, each author shows how she has brought her own background and philosophy to her story, making for a deeply personal and heartfelt collection. Because the stories are similar thematically, there is a synergy in reading them together as a collection.

Though all stories are readable, highlights are Better for All the World by Marieke Nijkamp about Carrie, an autistic girl who wants to study the law in 1927 Washington DC and The Belle of the Ball, set in 1952 Brooklyn, by Sarvenaz Tash, in which Rosemary finds a route to pursue her dream of writing comedy.

Perfect for readers who enjoy the quick hit of short stories and are interested in seeing history from a different perspective through exploring a wide range of intersectional feminist outlooks.

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen, 2017.

Lord Henry “Monty” Montague, Viscount of Disley, his sister, Felicity, and his friend, biracial Percy Newton are off on their Grand Tour of Europe. But instead of taking in culture and high society in the prominent continental cities of their time, they end up in a series of adventures precipitated by Monty stealing a trinket box from the Duke of Bourbon.

All three characters are hiding their secrets from the world and each other. 18-year-old Monty seems to be a shallow, if enchanting, rake without a care or thought for anyone else, but he is deeply in love with Percy though doesn’t dare to tell him. Once the three are on the run from the aristocrat, they get held up by highwaymen, Monty is imprisoned in Barcelona, and then they are captured by pirates. As their troubles pile up, their secrets start to spill and this becomes much more than a lighthearted romp through 18th century high society.

Ms Lee has done thorough research on the attitudes and mores of the period, which she shares in an afterword, but the novel wears the learning lightly. Through Percy, we see how dark-skinned people were treated, even if they were part of a high born family; and the beliefs about women’s capabilities are explored through Felicity’s unfulfilled ambitions.

Monty, as our narrator, starts off as an oblivious and childishly spoilt social gadfly – he drinks, he gambles, and has flings with both sexes. The adventure tests and tries him, and his development and maturing is organic and written beautifully. Though Felicity and Percy don’t have the need to grow up in quite the same way, they both are gradually revealed as satisfyingly well rounded characters.

The plot is a rollercoaster of escapades, parties, intrigue, and romantic near misses. The ending leaves all three characters with closure, but I’m rather hoping Ms Lee will continue the adventures of these charmers.

Hamilton and Peggy! A Revolutionary Friendship by L. M. Elliott

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Hamilton and Peggy! A Revolutionary Friendship by L. M. Elliott
Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.

Though rather misleadingly titled, this thoroughly researched and very readable historical novel shines a light on the third of the Schuyler sisters, Peggy, who only appears briefly in the first half of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and the lot of women in 18th century America.

Set between 1777-1781, the author has used contemporary letters and journals and informed speculation (no letters from Peggy have survived) to weave in battles, personalities, and events from the period as seen through Peggy’s eyes. Peggy has always felt like an afterthought compared to “scintillating, enrapturing Angelica [and] the saintly sweet Eliza” but the Revolutionary War is her opportunity to find her niche. With her sisters both married, Peggy is able to help her father as he runs black ops for George Washington and the Patriots.

Elliott’s Peggy is both very much of her time and will have appeal for today’s young women. In an echo of Hamilton’s “young, scrappy, and hungry,” Peggy’s father describes her as “stubborn, defiant, willful” and just what the new country needs. She wants to use her brains in the cause of liberty and “wit was her bayonet” but it was frowned on for women to express thoughts on what was considered men’s province: war, politics, and philosophy but to Peggy, women’s stuff seems so “small” in the context of the Revolution.

Despite the book’s title, Alexander Hamilton is very much a secondary character though the relationship between the two is charming. More significantly, the author shows the bond between the three Schuyler sisters as they part and come together again, quarrel and bond. Though the book does get a little bogged down in the nitty gritty of the revolution, the personalities of all the characters are crafted and vivid.

Peggy has a brief romance with a French officer, Fleury, which flames like a firework and then as quickly dies out. But by the end of the book, true love with a distant relative Steven Van Rensselaer is on the horizon.

The author has included an extensive afterword describing the research process and explaining what is true and what is informed speculation. There is also an extensive bibliography for reader wanting to dig deeper into Peggy and others’ lives.

Ideal for Hamilton fans who want to know more of the real story and as an unusual perspective for those interested in the founding of our country.

The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2018.

This middle grade historical fantasy adventure, the start of a trilogy, has many of Ms Nielsen’s signature charms but is derailed by an over-complicated plot.

16 year-old aristocratic Kestra Dallisor is blackmailed into helping the rebel Coracks find the Olden Blade – the only weapon that can kill the evil, and immortal, ruler Lord Endrick. She is assisted by her former servant turned rebel Simon, with whom she has a love-hate relationship and Trina, who is decidedly not amused to take the role of Kestra’s handmaid.

All three of these central characters have their secrets, and much like other JAN novels, these are gradually revealed. But none of the twists have quite the shock value that they should have because they’re bogged down in a thick stew of explanations.

Dual narrators, Kestra and Simon, are angst-ridden teens fighting their attraction to each other and it isn’t really a spoiler to tell you that it’s a battle they don’t win. Kestra is a modern spec fic young woman – she is feisty and snarky, stubborn, emotional, apt to blame herself for everything, and a whizz with the weapons du jour. She becomes conflicted as her awareness of the real state of Antora outside of the sheltered confines of the capital grows. Simon is standard issue dishy with hair that flops adorably out of place, thoughtful, and righteous.

In this sort of adventure, world building and plotting is crucial and I’m afraid this isn’t up to JAN’s usual standard: the world building, while reminiscent of The False Prince’s Carthya, is overly complicated (there just seems no point in inventing and having to describe new creatures) and characters spend a lot of time explaining things to each other. There are some rather clunky shifts as minds are rapidly changed and secrets are conveniently revealed, and some sloppiness leads to a couple of gaping plot holes. The end is pretty predictable as we get set up for the sequel.

Overall this was a little disappointing for me, lacking the charm and freshness of the The False Prince (2012) and The Scourge (2016), though fans of this genre will doubtless romp through it.

Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All

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Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All
Schwartz & Wade, May 2018.

Typically the women who married Henry VIII are seen, as the subtitle of this book suggests, purely as adjuncts to the King and are remembered best for the way he disposed of them: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived as the rhyme goes. This book aims to flesh out these women with each telling her own story, and written by a different female YA author, with some short interjections from Henry, written by M. T. Anderson.

What becomes apparent from each story is the powerlessness of royal and aristocratic women in the 16th century. Each were offered up to the king to secure advantages for their families, whether British or European. Once married, their sole purpose was to provide a son and heir. Those that failed to do that were either divorced or executed for treason. The only two queens who seemed to get anything out of their marriages were Anna of Cleves, who seemed to be quite happy to be divorced and left to her own devices, and Kateryn Parr, who had a taste of power while Henry was off fighting wars in France and then nearly overstepped herself but, in the end, outlived her husband.

In this novel, Henry is written as a bragging oblivious Trumpian figure, manipulated by the powerful men he raises up to run the country according to his whims. He believes he is irresistible to women, even when his suppurating ulcers make him stink and he is so vast he has to be lowered onto his bed by a team of servants. So it follows naturally that when his two youngest and prettiest wives – shrewd Anne Boleyn and party girl Catherine Howard – are suspected of adultery he has them executed.

While most of this will be familiar, to an extent at least, to British teens, it is almost unknown to American ones (I say this having done a completely unscientific survey by asking six students at my school what they knew about Henry VIII). This means it really has to entice and entertain on its own merits and I’m afraid it doesn’t quite pull that off. The first story, which needs to be juicily intriguing, just isn’t. Unfortunately, Henry’s first wife, the dutiful and deeply religious Katherine of Aragon (written by Candace Fleming) is not particularly interesting. The poor women gave birth to seven children of which only one daughter, later Queen Mary, survived. Once she is no longer able to bear children, Henry is desperate to move on, and desperate to bed the seductive Anne Boleyn. The machinations of the divorce, which entails Henry breaking from Rome and the Catholic Church, just don’t make for very good reading and Katherine comes across as rather dull and dry.

The remaining stories are a mixed bag but steadily improve. Anne (by Stephanie Hemphill), writing from her prison in the Tower of London, gets things going a bit more but we are with her in her last days, which tinge the vibrancy of her life with melancholy. The meek and mousy Jane Seymour (by Lisa Ann Sandell) is given just a hint of malice, but her story is short and ends with her dying after giving birth to the much-desired son, the sickly Edward. The novel really picks up with Anna of Cleves (by Jennifer Donnelly), as her pragmatic outlook on her lot gives her a much more sympathetic contemporary feel. Poor Catherine Howard (by Linda Sue Park) is bracingly sexual and, unsatisfied by her old and virtually impotent husband, tragically looks elsewhere for satisfaction. Finally the survivor, Kateryn Parr (by Deborah Hopkinson) relishes her own intellect and is able to outsmart the Bishops who feel she is too much a Reformist and a bad influence on the KIng.

The impact of the political and religious changes of the era are much more far-reaching, though less sizzling, than the fact that Henry married 6 times, though Henry’s desire for a male heir was what catalyzed it. Henry’s split from Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the battle between the different wings of the Church all had more serious consequences for the country and for Europe.

To be honest, I can’t see this book getting much traction with American teens as it’s an obscure bit of history that just isn’t that rivetingly written.

Americanized: Rebel without a Green Card by Sara Saedi

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Americanized: Rebel without a Green Card by Sara Saedi
Knopf, 2018

This breezy memoir about growing up Iranian American in Northern California is shot through with Sara’s family’s struggles to secure legal status.

Much of Sara’s teen life has the same concerns as any other American teen – why doesn’t the boy I like like not like like me in return? How come my older sister is so much cooler than me? What am I going to do with my life? Is my nose too big?

But there is a dark underside as well, as her loving parents, who left Iran and sought political asylum during the 1979 revolution, will go to any length to secure a green card, including getting divorced (and later remarrying because it proved to be unnecessary).

We are welcomed into Sara’s large extended family, getting some of the background of their lives in pre-revolutionary Iran as well as how they have integrated their culture into their Bay Area home, giving a picture of Tehran and Iranians that is far closer to Western life than the terrorists shown in the news.

Topping and tailing the memoir is a brief history of post-colonial Iran and a primer on the complexities of immigration status.

By making her background open and accessible, Sara offers both a mirror and a window for American teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

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My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver
Candlewick, July 2018.

Drawing from her own experience as an Argentinian in Alabama during the watershed years when schools were integrated, the author  has created a wonderful, lively, and warm-hearted story about 6th grader Lu Olivera, set in fictitious Red Grove, Alabama in 1970. In the first year that her school has included black students, Lu sits in the middle row of her classroom between the black kids and the white kids. Middle rowers don’t exactly belong to either group: “our moms and dads believe in equal rights and all that good stuff” which makes them “ weirdos” to some people.

Lu is torn between her previous unknowing comfortable old life when she was friends with white Abigail and Phyllis, and the scary new ground of being friends with black Belinda. She’s becoming politically aware as the election for the governor plays out between moderate Albert Brewer and racist George Wallace. Lu’s older sister, Marina, works for the Brewer campaign as well as being involved with the anti-Vietnam war campaign. On the personal front, Lu finds out that she is a really good runner which upsets the status quo at school and causes some conflict with her conservative parents. She is also attracted to white Sam, whose parents have been big supporters of integration and civil rights.

As more of the white kids move over to private white-only East Lake Academy, Lu finds she is no longer content with sitting in the middle – she has to take a stand. And she has to persuade her parents to let her go to track camp in the summer so she can join the track team with Belinda in 7th grade.

The author does a terrific job of showing Lu’s personal and political growth over the course of a few months, while keeping her voice entirely appropriate for a smart, curious, and slightly naive 12-year-old.

There is a lot going on in the novel, but the author skillfully weaves all the storylines together to give a whole picture of a young girl growing up at a challenging time in a challenging place and finding her own conscience. A great read for middle graders interested in social justice.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.