Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Review of They Went Left, by Monica Hesse

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020

They Went Left

by Monica Hesse
read by Caitlin Davies

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020. 9 hours.
Review written July 13, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

They Went Left is a novel of the Holocaust – but takes place after World War II has ended. Zofia Lederman spent months in a hospital, and something’s still wrong with her mind. She still gets pulled into dark memories – and she’s not even sure the memories are real.

Zofia wants nothing more than to find her little brother, Abek. She’s obsessed with the promise she made to him to find him after the war. All the rest of her family is dead – they went left to the gas chambers when sorted at the camp.

First Zofia has a helpful Russian soldier take her to their home in Poland. But it’s empty and has been looted, and Abek isn’t there. It becomes clear she isn’t being welcomed back by her former neighbors, either.

Then Zofiya hears of a place for displaced persons in Germany. Others from the camp where she last saw Abek have gone there. She makes the journey there to find her brother. Once there, she’s surrounded by other people trying to figure out how to go on with their lives. It turns out not every displaced person was even in the camps. And all the while, she’s starting to wonder which of her memories she even dares to believe.

This powerful story will linger in your memory. It captures the exquisite pain of figuring out how to start your life over after seeing your whole family die and experiencing horrors.

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Source: This review is based on an eaudiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of My Calamity Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

Thursday, October 29th, 2020

My Calamity Jane

by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

HarperTeen, 2020. 520 pages.
Review written October 10, 2020, from a library book

This is the third book by “The Lady Janies” about a historical (or fictional) Jane retold with a paranormal twist. The first two – My Lady Jane about Lady Jane Grey and My Plain Jane about Jane Eyre – I was very familiar with the stories they were based on, and especially enjoyed the way they’d been shifted. I was not very familiar at all with the life of Calamity Jane of the Old West, so that made the book not quite as much fun.

At first, I felt like it was all melodramatic and silly. Then I remembered that it’s intentionally melodramatic and silly, and I settled in and enjoyed it.

The twist they put into this story was that Wild Bill Hickok and his Wild West show featuring Calamity Jane were werewolf hunters as well. So this is the Old West with werewolves. And we’ve got an evil werewolf, the Alpha, who’s forming a Pack of werewolves who follow the Alpha in wickedness. And Wild Bill and Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley and Frank Butler the Pistol Prince all get involved in a wild adventure with the Alpha as the adversary. But we do have a twist that not all werewolves are bad. If you get bitten, you don’t have to prey on others when the moon is full.

And it includes trick shooting and bull whip manipulations and plenty of romance.

So it’s more silly fun. This time in the Wild West.

ladyjanies.com
epicreads.com

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Review of Superman Smashes the Klan, by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru

Wednesday, September 9th, 2020

Superman Smashes the Klan

by Gene Luen Yang
art by Gurihiru
lettering by Janice Chiang

DC Comics, 2020, 240 pages.
Review written September 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This fabulous graphic novel is based on a story told on the radio in the 1940s, and it’s wonderfully timely today. A Chinese family has moved to Metropolis. The older brother plays baseball and is welcomed on the neighborhood team at the “Unity Center,” sponsored by a priest, a pastor, and a rabbi. The younger sister, Roberta, misses their home in Chinatown.

But there’s a group that doesn’t want a Chinese family to move into their neighborhood – the Klan of the Fiery Kross – and they burn on cross on the Lees front lawn that night.

And you know what happens, because it’s in the title – Superman smashes the Klan! But along the way there’s plenty of danger and mixed loyalties and evil plots, and the kids get to ride with Superman as he – leaps. That’s right – Superman didn’t yet realize he could fly. In this book, Superman comes to terms with who he is, and that he, too, is an alien, even though his skin is white. And he learns to use more of his powers.

One of my favorite parts was a flashback to a time when teenager Clark Kent went to the circus with Lana Lang. Clark notices that the Strongman is the same guy who took their tickets. Their conversation goes like this:

What? No! That guy was bald! This guy’s got longer hair than mine!

Lana, he’s clearly wearing a wig!

Well. . . It’s not just that. Look at the way he carries himself! And that costume!

You like his costume?! He’s wearing his underwear on the outside!

Yeah, but he makes it work somehow.

Later the Strongman advises Clark, “The more colorful the costume, the better.”

It’s nice seeing Superman defeat bad guys who are still with us today.

The Grand Hornet of the Klan tells Superman that nothing binds us to people who don’t share our blood or our history. Superman responds by saying that we are bound together by the future. “We all share the same tomorrow.”

That’s right, Superman! Speak up for what’s right!

geneyang.com

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Review of Igniting Darkness, by Robin LaFevers

Thursday, August 27th, 2020

Igniting Darkness

by Robin LaFevers

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 540 pages.
Review written August 27, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Ahhhhh! Such a magnificent series!

Series? you ask. Isn’t this supposed to be the second book in a duology? Well, yes it is, but you can think of the duology as a continuation of the trilogy that began with Grave Mercy, because it begins where the trilogy ended, and you will better understand the characters and relationships of the duology if you’ve already read the trilogy.

The main way the trilogy is different from the duology is that in the trilogy, each book was a stand-alone story in its own right, though they all went together well. Each book featured a different trained assassin from the convent that served Saint Mortain of Brittany, the god of Death. Each book told a love story, and each love story was different from the one before.

I got annoyed with the first book of the duology, Courting Darkness, because it did not follow this pattern. Though it did tell of a new daughter of Death from the convent, it did not complete her story at all and most issues were unresolved. All that intricate pulling together of a tapestry of threads was missing.

Because of my annoyance, I did not preorder my own copy of this book, but just read a library copy. I have already rectified that mistake. I ordered a copy so I can have my own when I reread all five books, which I have no doubt I’m going to want to do from time to time.

Was I missing intricate tying together of disparate threads? They’re all pulled together here. Courtly intrigue and daring adventure? It’s here. Satisfying love stories? Yes. Apparent doom and an appearance that victory is impossible? Yes. Utterly clever plans to overcome the insurmountable odds? Yes, again we’ve got them.

And it all comes together in an ending that’s worthy of the five magnificent books.

I won’t say a whole lot about details, since I want those who haven’t started this series to start at the beginning with Grave Mercy. I will say this is rich historical fiction of the kind I like best – for all we know, it could have really happened. It features the Duchy of Brittany, which at the start of the series and in actual history was ruled by a young duchess who had been promised in marriage to competing nobles from various places.

It also features assassin nuns! In the small touch of fantasy in these books, the heroines are daughters of Mortain, the god Death, one of nine gods of Brittany who were cleaned up and made saints by the Church. They serve the Duchess of Brittany during a time when women aren’t usually given that kind of power. Indeed, the Duchess’s new husband isn’t too happy about her wielding power of her own, and his sister who had been regent before he came of age, has her own plans for holding onto power.

This is a book of historical political intrigue, of desperate plots within plots, and women apparently without power figuring out what they can do to stand up against evil men who are accustomed to doing anything they want. It does help that those women have gifts from their father, the god of Death, and training from those who serve Death.

And you are lucky, Dear Reader – you don’t have to wait for the next book to come out! I’m definitely planning to sit down and read all five books some time in the near future.

RobinLaFevers.com
hmhbooks.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Attucks! by Phillip Hoose

Thursday, August 20th, 2020

Attucks!

Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City

by Phillip Hoose

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018. 212 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 14, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

I am not a fan of sports books. Ho hum. Who really cares?

So I was completely surprised to be mesmerized and pulled into this story of an all-black high school in Indianapolis that built a championship basketball program, despite discrimination.

Phillip Hoose puts a special note at the front of the book about an interview he did with Oscar Robertson in 1986 about basketball fever in Indiana.

One scrap from that conversation inspired the book you’re reading now.

“You know,” Oscar said, “when the Ku Klux Klan started our school, they really didn’t understand what they were doing.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“They did something they couldn’t foresee by making Attucks an all-black school. The city of Indianapolis integrated because we were winning. All the black guys, the really great players, went to Attucks. We were winning all those games, and the coaches didn’t like it. And then a lot of black kids started going to other schools . . .”

What could he be talking about? A high school in a major American city – in the North – started by the Ku Klux Klan? And a basketball team integrating that city?

Oscar wasn’t laughing.

Could it be true?

So Phillip Hoose is telling the story of winning basketball teams, building a championship basketball program, and one of the greatest high school basketball players ever – but he does all that against the backdrop of overcoming racism and the whole city of Indianapolis building pride in the championship team at the all-black high school.

There are spoilers in the note at the front. The author doesn’t hide that Oscar Robertson led the Attucks team to state championships in 1955 and 1956. But how they got there – That’s a story!

The Prologue actually begins before Oscar was even in high school – with the game where his big brother had an amazing game-winning shot with seven seconds left.

Then the main text goes back to the founding of Cristpus Attucks high school in 1927 – yes, it was started by the Klan in order to separate the black kids who had been moving to Indianapolis from the south. He carefully gives us several threads to follow, including how the basketball program developed as well as Oscar’s childhood, obsessed with basketball from an early age.

The first basketball coach at Attucks was concerned that his players not offend anyone – which doesn’t make for the toughest team. But even when they got an excellent coach, the larger white schools wouldn’t play against them, and they weren’t even allowed in the statewide tournament until 1942.

The author includes several seasons, including some with real heartbreaker games. He highlights many of their great players (not just Oscar, the Big O). It all builds to a breathtaking finish and a description of their undefeated season when they became state champions.

And I should probably stop saying that I don’t like sports books. This one was outstanding.

philliphoose.com
fiercereads.com

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Source: This review is based on a book sent by the publisher.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Monday, August 17th, 2020

The Water Dancer

by Ta-Nehisi Coates
read by John Morton

Random House Audio, 2019. 14 hours, 14 minutes.
Review written August 10, 2020, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

With regular library audiobooks, I confess, if it’s due and I have almost finished listening, sometimes I do renew to get a little more time. But I listened to this book on eaudiobook. I knew there were several holds. So I ended up staying up until 3 am to finish listening.

The story is mesmerizing, and John Morton’s wonderful deep voice brings it to life. It’s the story of Hiram, one of the “tasked” on a Virginia plantation before the Civil War. His father is the plantation owner, but his mother got sold further south when he was very young. But he’s found favor with his father and has been made the personal servant of his half-brother.

As the book opens, something strange happens involving a blue light and a river and the road they are taking disappearing. Hiram’s white brother drowns, which changes things for Hiram. Listeners learn about his life growing up on the plantation, the struggles the “quality” are having as tobacco uses up the Virginia soil, and Hiram’s growing desire for freedom.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that Hiram has some otherworldly powers, but doesn’t know how to harness them. He becomes involved in the underground, and even meets Harriet Tubman, who can powerfully wield “conduction” herself.

I was tempted to speed up the audio as I finished so I wouldn’t have to stay up until 3 am after all, but the narrator’s deep, rich voice has a meditative quality to it, and speeding it up ruined the peace I felt from listening to it. And it was totally worth the lack of sleep.

This is a powerful story which looks at history from a new angle.

ta-nahesicoates.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on an eaudiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich

Monday, June 22nd, 2020

The Night Watchman

by Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins, 2020. 451 pages.
Review written June 22, 2020, from a library book

Set in 1953, The Night Watchman tells about people of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota and how they stood up to the federal government of the United States threatening to take their lands. Here’s what the author wrote in a piece at the front of the book:

On August 1, 1953, the United States Congress announced House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill to abrogate nation-to-nation treaties, which had been made with American Indian Nations for “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.” The announcement called for the eventual termination of all tribes, and the immediate termination of five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

My grandfather Patrick Gourneau fought against termination as tribal chairman while working as a night watchman. He hardly slept, like my character Thomas Wazhashk. This book is fiction, but all the same, I have tried to be faithful to my grandfather’s extraordinary life. Any failures are my own. Other than Thomas, and the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, the only other major character who resembles anyone alive or dead is Senator Arthur V. Watkins, relentless pursuer of Native dispossession and the man who interrogated my grandfather.

Pixie, or – excuse me – Patrice, is completely fictional.

The story is about Patrice, who works in the Jewel Bearing Plant. But she needs to take some time off to try to find her sister, who has gone missing in the big city and is in trouble. Meanwhile, more than one man would like to win Patrice’s attention, and Thomas is disturbed by a letter that came from Washington, DC. Eventually, he needs to put together a delegation to make their case before Congress. Various colorful characters will help him out.

I read this book and finished very happy that these people successfully stopped their nation from being terminated. However, historical notes at the back, telling which parts came from truth, made my heart sink with this paragraph:

In all, 113 tribal nations suffered the disaster of termination; 1.4 million acres of tribal land was lost. Wealth flowed to private corporations, while many people in terminated tribes died early, in poverty. Not one tribe profited. By the end, 78 tribal nations, including the Menominee, led by Ada Deer, regained federal recognition; 10 gained state but not federal recognition; 31 tribes are landless; 24 are considered extinct.

But the book itself tells a good story, all the more poignant because it’s based in truth. A story of people up against the powerful, but also living and loving and making lives together. It is comforting that these people indeed triumphed in their struggle.

harpercollins.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Kiss Carlo, by Adriana Trigiani

Thursday, June 11th, 2020

Kiss Carlo

by Adriana Trigiani
read by Edoardo Ballerini

HarperAudio, 2018. 16 hours, 2 minutes.
Review written June 3, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

I listened to Kiss Carlo as a Skip-the-Line loan for an eaudiobook during the Covid-19 pandemic, when I’m listening to audiobooks on my phone (instead of CDs in the car) for the first time in my life. So I didn’t have to wait for an available copy, but I had to finish in 14 days, and my status as a library employee wouldn’t help me fudge that. This meant a little extra time doing puzzles!

The book is a historical novel about a big Italian family in South Philadelphia shortly after World War II. Nicky Castone has been engaged to his girl Peachy for seven years. She even waited for him during the war. He drives a cab for his family’s taxicab company, which is in a feud with another branch of the family and their taxicab company. Nicky is an orphan, but his aunt and uncle love him as their own. He’s also looked after by Hortense Mooney, the black dispatcher at the cab company. She tells Nicky that Peachy isn’t right for him.

Another plot thread deals with Calla Berelli, who is taking over her father’s theater, which runs Shakespeare plays year round. The theater is struggling, and the rise of television isn’t helping. Nicky’s been doing odd jobs at the theater for a long time, wherever he’s needed, and one night – which happens to be the night he finally told Peachy he was working at the theater – an emergency calls an actor away, and Nicky, who’d been prompting and knew all the lines, had to take the part.

In that moment, Nicky begins to realize that acting makes him feel alive. His fiancée is not at all pleased, which eventually tips Nicky off that maybe they aren’t right for each other after all.

But the path Nicky travels takes many twists and turns from there, including impersonating Carlo, an ambassador from Italy scheduled to be an officiating dignitary at a jubilee celebration in a small town in Pennsylvania. Nicky does it to escape Peachy’s angry father, and Hortense accompanies him as an American government official to lend him credence.

Okay, after that paragraph – let me give up trying to explain the plot. But it’s all in good fun. Some of the turns the plot takes are maybe a little unlikely, but the story is enjoyable. The big strength is in portraying the close-knit Italian-American community and the various characters along the way.

The narrator did a great job voicing the characters, expressing their characters with enough consistency that I could tell who was speaking by the voice used, and with a nice use of accents.

This was a light-hearted listen that still pulled you into the world of the book.

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Review of Out of Left Field, by Ellen Klages

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020

Out of Left Field

by Ellen Klages

Viking, 2018. 314 pages.
Starred Review
Review written September 3, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#7 Historical Children’s Fiction

This book is historical fiction set in 1957 when San Francisco is about to get a major league baseball team, the Giants. Katy Gordon is the best pitcher in the neighborhood, and she’s thrilled when she tries out for Little League and makes the team. But when they find out she’s a girl, she’s not allowed to play, and she gets an official letter from Little League saying baseball has always been a man’s sport.

Katy suspects that’s not true. She starts at the library and discovers a woman who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig – consecutively.

One thing leads to another. Katy interviews women, writes letters, and does more research – and uncovers hundreds of women who played professional baseball, some in their own leagues, some in the Negro leagues, and some as barnstormers playing exhibition games along with men.

It’s interesting how much fun it is to read about a kid doing research. Back in 1957, most of these women were still alive, and Katy was able to meet them and talk with them. And Katy’s research is interwoven with her baseball games and perfecting her pitching. I like the part when she gets to pitch to Willie Mays!

With all the kids’ books I’ve been reading, it was refreshing that even though Katy’s best friend Jules got assigned to a different teacher this year, and even though she doesn’t like playing baseball and has other interests instead – the girls stay friends and stay supportive of each other. What’s more, there are no dead parents in this book! Okay, Katy’s parents are divorced, but this doesn’t seem to be traumatic in her life and her father sends supportive messages.

I learned a whole lot about women’s baseball by reading this book – but all the information never got in the way of the story of Katy, the best pitcher in the neighborhood.

penguin.com/YoungReaders

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Review of The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson

Monday, May 18th, 2020

The Parker Inheritance

by Varian Johnson

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2018. 331 pages.
Review written in 2018 from a book sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 Contemporary Children’s Fiction
2019 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book
2019 Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Book

The Parker Inheritance is a wonderful tribute to The Westing Game, with a mysterious millionaire leaving money to enhance a town in the south – if and only if someone can solve the clues and tell the story of discrimination that happened in the past.

Many years ago, Candice’s grandmother was city manager of Lambert, South Carolina. She got one of the original letters and tried to solve the clues – but succeeded only in disgracing herself by digging up some tennis courts and not finding the treasure.

Now Candice and her mother are living in her grandmother’s old home for the summer. In the attic, she finds an envelope addressed to her from her grandmother. In the envelope is the original letter – promising treasure for the town and for the person who solves the clues.

Brandon, a neighbor kid from across the street is there in the attic with her when she finds the letter. (They were looking for books to read, because her grandma was good about that, too.) Together, they start researching the people mentioned in the letter, the Washington family, who got run out of Lambert back in 1957.

The book gives periodic interludes from the story of the Washingtons while we follow the main story of Candice and Brandon solving the clues.

And Candice and Brandon have to learn about what happened in 1957. They look at pictures in the library. They need to find yearbooks from both the white high school and the colored high school. They find out about a secret tennis match between the two schools. The African Americans won, and there were repercussions.

The puzzle is well done, but the story supports it well – making this much more than just a puzzle book. I’m going to have to reread The Westing Game. It also tells a story of racism – which was sad back in 1957, but is largely overcome over the years. I especially like Siobhan Washington’s emphasis on love and forgiveness and rising above.

varianjohnson.com
scholastic.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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