Posts tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

Sunny Side Up

Sunny Side Up.jpgTitle: Sunny Side Up
Author/Illustrator: Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Colorist: Lark Pien
ISBN: 9780545741651
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

”Are we going shopping for new swimsuits for the beach today?”
“Sunny, I have some bad news. We won’t be going to the beach house after all. Your dad thinks it’s best that we cancel the trip.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”
“But what about Deb? What about all our BIG PLANS?”
“We thought of something even more fun for you to do instead! We’re going to have you visit Grampa in Florida. You’ll get to fly down all by yourself! A ‘big girl’ trip. Doesn’t that sound fun?” (191-192)

Ten-year-old Sunny Lewin will not be visiting the beach house with her family and best friend as planned, but instead has been sent to Florida by herself to spend the remaining weeks of her summer vacation with her grandfather in a 55+ community. The only other person even close to her age is a boy named Buzz, the son of the care-taker. He introduces Sunny to catching lost cats and fishing golf balls out of the ponds to earn spending money for comics. As Sunny learns about the secrets these superheroes keep, her thoughts keep returning to the secrets in her own family that have forced her into this position. Should she have said something sooner? Should she say something now?

I spoke with a colleague about the problem with problem novels recently. Problem novels need to have it as an aspect of the novel, and not have the problem monopolize the plot. An African American character does not always have to overcome racism, a transgender person does not always have to come out of the closet, and a disabled person does not have to always triumph over adversity. As I mentioned in my review of the Great Good Summer, it’s important to see kids dealing with all sorts of problems.

But there is very little action in the sleepy senior citizens community in Florida. The big mystery of the book is why Sunny was sent to Florida, and readers don’t even realize there was a specific reason for this until half way through the book. While revealing her concerns eases her internalized tensions, it doesn’t really solve the problems that caused them, and her struggles aren’t well represented in the visual format of a graphic novel. Multiple flashbacks allude to something sinister, but it is vague and takes too long to develop. The bright colors conflict with the subject matter, which I hesitate to call more mature but is definitely different than the lighter fare of Roller Girls or Smile, which I think is the audience that would be appealed by the cover. I wonder if Sunny’s talk with her grandfather could really make a lasting impact in her life. Even in the author’s note, Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm state that they wrote the book “so younger readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did” and encourage readers to “reach out to family members and teachers and school counselors,” but doing that will not solve the initial problems that caused these feelings. This is a very different book then Babymouse or Squish, and I think readers will be surprised.

Finding Someplace

Finding Someplace.jpgTitle: Finding Someplace
Author: Denise Lewis Patrick
ISBN: 9780805047165
Pages: 214 pages
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, c2015.

”We’re trapped up here!” she shouted. […]
Reesie held her breath as first his feet disappeared, then his knees. Just as his face vanished, they heard loud splashing. His head popped up again. When he crawled off the ladder, he was wet from the waist down. Reesie saw his eyes and knew how scared he was. Her heart thumped.
“We gotta get on the roof,” he said, reaching for the crowbar. “Miss M, I’m sorry but we have to bust it up.”
”What?” both girls yelled at once.
“Calm it down, a’ight? Yeah, the roof. How else are we gonna get out of here?” (88-89)

Reesie (short for Theresa) Boone is looking forward to her thirteenth birthday party. Everyone else is looking at the upcoming storm, which the news forecasts is going to be the big one. Some neighbors and extended family members are evacuating, but Reesie’s father is on the police force and intent on staying at his post. When her mother gets stuck working at the hospital when the storm hits, Reesie must fend for herself during the storm. But after the storm hits and the water recedes, life does not return to normal, and Reesie wonders if it ever will.

Ressie is a realistic character who grows and changes as a result of the events and decisions she is forced to face. In the beginning she focuses on her birthday and party, and by the end she is thinking more about her family and world as a whole. She is bright, intelligent, and has a good head on her shoulders even while her actions are in line with what a teenager would do in those situations. Her family is equally realistically portrayed, with a variety of opinions expressed regarding responsibility to their community and their family, and what action should be taken. It was such a juxtaposition when her brother, who is away at college, calls before the storm to encourage her to evacuate, and then mentions in passing he has a date that evening. It reinforces the idea that life continues elsewhere in the world when a disaster hits, even as people impacted by the storm are hard-pressed to think of anything else and have priorities that are incomparable to anyone who didn’t experience them first hand.

It’s refreshing to see not just the time before and during the storm, but the story follows the family for months as they deal with the fallout and aftermath. Arguments arise, relationships change, and Ressie is faced with an unclear future, tensions at home and school, and nightmares. Readers are privy to all the uncertainties, rather than the glamorized survival instincts that a few other books focus on during their narrative. As we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the storm just months ago, it’s important to remember that even though the storm has passed, the work is just beginning and even 10 years later continues.

The Book of Secrets

Book of SecretsTitle: The Book of Secrets
Series: Mister Max #2
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Illustrator: Iacopo Bruno
Narrator: Paul Boehmer
ISBN: 9780804122078 (audio), 9780307976840 (hardcover)
CDs/Discs: 8 CDs, 10 hours
Pages: 355 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2014 (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2014.)

He asked, “You’ve heard about the recent vandalism?”
Max nodded. “There have been fires as well.”
The Mayor nodded. “I suspect—I strongly suspect—that something is going on. For one thing, it’s always some small shop that gets broken into, or where a fire breaks out. Greengrocer, cobbler, newsagent . . .” He looked out over the water, recalling. “A bakery, a milliner, a fishmonger. Is that eight?”
“Six,” said Max, who had been counting.
“There are two more.” The Mayor thought. “A butcher and—there was one that surprised me, you’d think that would be the easiest to remember . . . Yes it was a florist.”
“What was surprising about the florist?”
“The shop was outside the gates, not in the old city. Granted, it’s only four steps beyond the West Gate, but still . . . All the other victims are in the old city.” […]
“What do the police say?” he asked.
“That’s the problem. The police don’t have anything to say.” The Mayor sighed and told Max, “They’re suspicious, of course, but nobody will talk to them. Nobody has filed a complaint. Not one.” (71-72)

Secrets are surrounding Max as word spreads about his reputation as a Solutioneer, a detective or investigator of sorts who tries to solve people’s problems. A small boy wants to know where his father disappears to at night. A mysterious woman appears that no one knows anything about. And the Mayor of Queensbridge has enlisted Max’s help in uncovering the identity of an arsonist on the loose, without jeopardizing the upcoming visit of the king. However, he’s made little progress on his own problem, discovering how to get his parents back from their forced extended stay overseas, especially after he and his grandmother are informed they have become monarchs in the foreign, civil war-torn country of Andesia. Now his own grandmother may be keeping secrets from him. Instead of his own intuition and disguises, Max may find himself relying on his expanding number of accomplices, as the Mayor’s problem is the most dangerous yet, risking his own life in the hands of the criminals.

Another engaging novel from author Cynthia Voigt. Readers will have to be as attentive as Max to keep track of the ever-expanding cast of characters. Voigt doesn’t skimp on realistic details, including filling the town with a variety of townspeople. I appreciated the efforts to flush out the setting, which you don’t often see in stories. Most frequently in books, you’ll only interact with the main cast, but this isn’t the case here. The back stories, especially involving some of the secondary characters, are more told than shown, which can get tiring, especially when paired with heavy-handed and thinly veiled discourse about moral quandaries. Those questions about right and wrong could pair well with discussion questions, but most of the discussion has already occurred in the novel. The laying-out of these details comes in handy when attempting to come up with a solution, and the solutions come in clever unexpected twists that readers might be surprised by. The arsonist plot line does get slightly more violent than previous cases that the Solutioneer had worked on, which previously involved lost dogs and missing heirlooms. I’m curious to see if this progression in seriousness will continue in the final volume as they take their show on the road, which we get a glimpse of in an included excerpt.

The audiobook is just as well done as the last one. An even pacing lays out the thoughtful and introspective nature of the story. Paul Boehmer distinguishes between the major characters, not so much with different voices, but with different pacing. The minor characters have slightly less distinction, but Pia’s parts invoke the impatience and distracted energy necessary, Grammie has some English school-teacher inflection, Tomi has a more know-it-all and scratchy staccato quality, and Ari has a slower and rounder, stretched out vowel sounds. Fans of the series won’t be disappointed by this latest installment, and the sequel, The Book of Kings was just released last month.

The Marvels

MarvelsTitle: The Marvels
Author/Illustrator: Brian Selznick
ISBN: 9780545448680
Pages: 670 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.
Publication Date: September 15, 2015

”Leo was inspired by the stories of his great-great-grandfather Billy stowing away aboard a ship four generations earlier. So he decided to run away, too.”
Joseph leaned in closer to the speakers. ”Before the sun rose, Leo wrote a note to his parents, making it clear he didn’t belong in the theatre. Then he set off to the docks to board a ship bound for India. While he waited for the ship, though, he saw a strange orange glow in the sky. Some intuition told him something was terribly wrong, and he ran all the way to his family’s theatre. It turned out that earlier that evening, the doddering old Alexander must have knocked over a candle, or dropped a match, because the entire theatre was engulfed in flames . . .” (511-512)

Joseph Jervis has run away from his boarding school and seeks asylum at his uncle’s house, whom he has only met once. His Uncle Albert lives a peculiar and secluded life surrounded by old furnishings, clothes and toys in a house that has never been updated, with sounds coming from the walls. Joseph is not allowed to touch anything while his uncle tries to figure out how to reach Joseph’s unreachable parents and what to do with the wayward teen. But clues as to the secrets and stories the house is whispering about prove too tempting for Joseph, and he delves into the history of the house and his family. Things aren’t adding up though, and Joseph must finally confront his uncle to get the answers he so desperately desires.

First, let’s chat about production quality, not something I typically address on this blog. The cover is glowingly embellished with contrasting gold lines against a navy blue background. The gold tones are continued onto the edges of the pages. While this makes for an impressive and imposing view from the side, it was more difficult to call it a true page-turner as the pages of my freshly arrived copy stuck together throughout. I doubt the next person who checks it out will have that issue, but it was frustrating as a first reader. A coworker did remark that you had a much more difficult time telling when the sections of print and pictures started and stopped, although if you look closely enough or fan the pages slightly there is still a noticeable color difference. Continuing the trend started with his previously published titles, the spine and back cover features the main character’s face, although we don’t see this particular piece of artwork until the last pages of the novel. Selznick as usual has spared not a single detail, down to the inside of the covers, as the front part features stormy seas and the inside of the back cover showcases a stunning sun over the ocean, giving readers a glimpse of the tempest (pun intended which readers will understand once they read the book) to come and the calm that comes by the end. Whether it’s setting or rising is anyone’s guess, but I think it could be interpreted either way. In the author’s note, he addresses the spelling of words as the British version, which I occasionally noticed but some might not, as an effort to keep the story firmly anchored in its British influences and history. I think this position is beautifully unique and admirably authentic considering how frequently those changes are made, such as the alterations made to J.K. Rowling’s works when they were imported.

Now, onto the story. I won’t say I didn’t like it, but it was more thought-provoking instead of awe-inspiring like his two previous works. In Hugo, we had a ground-breaking format, and in Wonderstruck there was a thought-provoking concept. In The Marvels, we have a story inspired by fact but also providing commentary on the nature of inspired-by-fact stories. What is truth and what is fiction, and how do we determine the difference? Is it really so important to separate the two? I loved what could possibly be the motto of the book, “You either see it or you don’t”, as a straight-forward observation that could be applied to not just physical elements of life but also more conceptual aspects. For instance, in terms of the We Need Diverse Books movement, this is another example of it being there (in this case homosexuality), but not being the main focus of the book, subtly riffing off the “You either see it or you don’t” theme. It’s okay if readers caught it, but it’s also okay if they don’t, as it’s never explicitly stated within the story.

As much as I love the illustrations Selznick put together for this work, they felt redundant this go around. With the inclusion of all the pictures to tell the story from the past, everything we previously witness through the preliminary pictures is spelled out in detail later on in the book. I’m interested to hear from other readers if having the pictures interspersed in the narrative instead of initially presented as a cluster would have changed your perception or enjoyment of the story. It’s understandable their inclusion is meant to more thoroughly engross readers into Joseph’s life and discoveries, to literally see what and how he sees and feel just as confused, frustrated, disappointed, and conned when the truth is revealed. But there is already a layer of separation for us the reader since we know this story we’re reading isn’t true, so I feel like the betrayal when it does come in the climax is never going to impact readers as thoroughly as it does Joseph. Instead I’m scratching my head and find myself referencing Rowling again, comparing the whole story to that one line of Dumbledore’s in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when he asks Harry “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real.” (723) I thought the real twist comes not with Uncle Al’s reveal, but with Selznick’s author’s note delineating what aspects of the story are inspired by real life events and people. In this way there’s almost two plot-twists, which might mean readers’ heads are spinning. Fans of Selznick’s previous works will be satisfied with this slightly circuitous story, but the revelations are what is truly memorable about this read.


Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

EchoTitle: Echo
Author: Pam Munoz Ryan
Illustrator: Dinara Mirtalipova
IBSN: 9780439874021
Pages: 590 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

<blockquote>Otto looked at the sisters, now despondent. “If I could get home, <em>I</em> could help you,” he offered.
“Do you have a woodwind?” asked Eins.
Zwei leaned closer, “A bassoon?”
“Or an oboe, perhaps?” asked Drei.
Otto shook his head. “I only brought on other thing.” He began to unroll his sleeve, which had been folded to the elbow. “This morning, when I bought the book, the Gypsy insisted I take this, too, and did not ask for an extra pfenning.”
He held up a harmonica. (21)</blockquote>

There once were three princesses, spirited away for their own safety to the home of a witch, who became resentful and locked them in a spell. In order to escape, they placed their spirits into a boy’s harmonica, entrusting him with the task of passing it along to the person they were meant to save. First to a young German boy, requiring courage to face down the rising Nazi party and rescue his family. Then to an orphaned American boy, desperate to care for his brother, even if it means separation. Finally to a young Mexican-American girl, whose migrant family might have finally found a home, if they can only fight the prejudices surrounding them. These families are pulled together by the strings of destiny, but will the three princesses finally be released from their captivity?

This hefty tome contains three equally compelling narratives that take readers to the climax of each of these stories, and then drops them like a stone, maintaining the suspense until things resolve at the very end. Readers are invested in the welfare of the characters; the German boy disagreeing with Nazi propaganda, the orphaned American boy trying to maintain his family, and the Mexican-American girl fighting prejudice. These slice of life stories are rich in details, evoking the fears each faces and sharing information about the rise of blues and obscure references to segregation efforts. But those details can also withheld to supply tension, as you never know quite what direction the characters will take at their individual crossroads until it’s actually happening. I can’t say too much without spoiling the stories, but suffice it to say I haven’t been this emotionally engaged while reading in a while. Bravo!


Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

WallTitle: Wall
Author/Illustrator: Tom Clohosy Cole
ISBN: 9780763675608
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Templar Books, an imprint of Candlewick Press, c2014.

A little boy’s family is separated by the Berlin Wall, but he is determined to reunite with his father. The text is sparse, with the evocative artwork supplying most of the details. There is one striking black and white illustration in the middle of the story that I keep returning to again and again, thinking it would better serve a book about the war rather than the aftermath of one. Minus that exception, the illustrations are limited to dark blues and blacks for East Berlin, or reds, pinks, and oranges when portraying either West Berlin or the hope that West Berlin inspired. There is a short explanatory text on the back jacket, which I wish had been better placed as I think most readers will miss it. An interesting topic choice for an idealized picture book, but it could be used by families with personal connections to those events.


BoundlessTitle: Boundless
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Illustrator: Jim Tierney
Narrator: Nick Podehl
ISBN: 9781480584143 (audiobook), 9781442472884 (hardcover)
Pages: 332 pages
Discs/CDs: 7 CDs, 8 hours 12 minutes
Publisher/Date: Brillance Audio, c2014. (audiobook), Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2014. (hardback)

Amidst the greenery the silver keychain is easy to spot. Will bends to pick it up. It holds only a single key, unusually thick, with plenty of notches. At once he recognizes it as the key to the funeral car — same as his father’s. The guard must have dropped it. Will pockets it.
He is hurrying back toward the shantytown to catch up with the guard, when he hears a grumble off to his right. Likely the fellow has fallen down again. Will wonders if he should tell his father. The guard’s clearly unfit for his post. Will walks through the trees in the direction of the noise. Through the thick foliage he catches a glimpse of the guard’s jacket. […]
The guard is pushed back against a tree, his eyes wide with surprise. A second man has an elbow against the guard’s throat and is pulling the knife from between his ribs. Will can’t tear his eyes from the knife, darkly wet. He feels like he’s been touched with something searingly cold. The man with the knife turns. (87-88)

In the last three years, Will’s life has a had a dramatic change ever since he and his father were involved in the laying of the last spike connecting the Canadian Railway from one side of the country to the other. Will is riding with his father on the longest and biggest train ever built, the Boundless, and in addition to all the passengers and a circus, there is also a funeral car for the manager of the railroad, who is intent on spending the rest of his days, even after death, riding the rails. Rumors fly about the treasures contained in the funeral car, and when the guard is murdered, Will protects the key but ends up isolated in the back of the train. His efforts to make it back to his father and authorities are thwarted again and again, and just when he thinks he can trust the circus folk, he learns their ringmaster might have his own motives for keeping Will and the key close.

This is the first book of Kenneth Oppel’s I’ve read, having missed his previous bestsellers. His other books will be going on the to be read pile if they are anything like this. His world building is fantastic, including descriptions of the train and details of the furnishings. Elaborate information about how technology of that day work are included, and I noticed little details like how the clothing buttons instead of zippers closed. There’s also pieces of magical realism that connect effortlessly with the story, with Sasquatches being very real, in addition to the Muskeg hag that bewitches people and magic tricks where you wonder if real magic is happening.

Will is a multifaceted character, gullible in the beginning but also suspicious once he gets the key. Originally intent on mimicking his father’s exploits and having an adventure of his own to tell people, he sets off to prove his abilities, both to others and to himself. We see him grow as a character, and assume some control over his life. I totally expected Mr. Dorian’s plot to go in a different direction, but that wasn’t the case, and I’ll admit I was slightly disappointed. If you are familiar with the classics, you may draw the same conclusions when you hear what Mr. Dorian is after. When Will finds himself in trouble again and again, his rescues and solutions do not strain credulity, and you’re left with a tale that makes you wonder “Could that have really happened?” Maren is also a capable and self-assured young lady who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go to great lengths to get it. Both Will and Maren think fast on their feet and play off the other’s strengths in order to help each person get what they want most, and their interactions with each other were highly entertaining.

Nick Podehl is probably at his best here, as he incorporates the global nature of the travelers, including accents and even a few words of Hindi. Although I can’t vouch for their accuracy, they sound authentic enough. For fans of trains, fantastical creatures, or just readers who are looking for the next great adventure, they are in for one wild ride.


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