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You've read Hattie Big Sky*, right?
If you hadn't, you should. Like, right now.
OMG, SO GOOD, RIGHT? I love it so much.
Spoilers about the first book are kind of a necessity, so continue at your own risk.
It's June, 1919, and Hattie Inez Brooks is in Great Falls, Montana, working at a boardinghouse so that she can pay off the last of the money owed on her Uncle Chester's claim. While she can't imagine her life without her best friend Charlie in it—he's back from the war, and suddenly a young man, rather than simply Hattie's childhood friend—she knows that she wants something more than settling down and getting married: she wants to follow in the footsteps of Ida Tarbell and Nellie Bly. Yes, Hattie Brooks wants to be a reporter.
So when she gets the opportunity to move to San Francisco, she takes it... even though it means being separated from Charlie yet again.
Once she gets to San Francisco, she discovers that breaking into journalism is going to be a rough road—apparently that horrible "you need experience to get the job, but can't get experience without getting the job" catch-22 goes back a long, long way—but Our Hattie is a determined young woman. Before long, she's settled into a new room, has a job at the paper—on the cleaning crew, but it's a foot in the door!—some new friends, a whole city to explore, and a lead on the Mystery of Her Late Uncle Chester's Long-Lost Romance.
She's definitely got some challenges ahead of her: in addition to her career goals, her relationship with Charlie is getting more and more confusing and complicated—and the attention she's getting from Ned at the paper isn't making things any simpler—but come what may, Hattie is making her way into the world and into life, and despite any pitfalls or stumbling blocks in her way, the world (and life) had better WATCH OUT.
If my squeefest about the existence of a Hattie-sequel is anything to judge by, I'm sure that any fan of the original will already be planning on reading Hattie Ever After. I'm also sure that any fan of the original will be plenty pleased with it: Hattie, after all, is an infinitely likable narrator, trustworthy, warm, generous, and kind. (But NEVER INSIPID.) I especially love her lack of entitlement or pretension: she's always willing to learn, and always willing to start at the absolute bottom. And there are some lovely bits about storytelling and the writing process that will be hugely inspiring to aspiring writers, regardless of age.
Also, Kirby Larson has a real knack for picking super-fun historical themes and tidbits and just, you know, stuff, to feature: celebrities of the day, early planes, details about 1919-era San Francisco, grifters, the newspaper business, vaudeville, women breaking into male-dominated fields, baseball, the dating scene... It's not quite as strong as the first book—the different threads of the storyline didn't always mesh together organically, some of the historical details (though always interesting!) feel a bit shoehorned in, older readers are bound to peg Ruby for what she really is at first sight, and the ending feels rushed—but it's still hugely, hugely enjoyable.
Bonus points: There's a lengthy author's note at the end with loads of information about Larson's process and her research, with recommendations for nonfiction reads as well as a few Special Features-ish 'I thought about going in this direction with the book' thoughts. It very definitely has me chomping at the bit to read more about famous lady journalists (like Nellie Bly) AND lady con artists (like this lady!). So, you know: YAY!
*How funny is it, by the way, that I wrote about not liking historical fiction in my post about Hattie Big Sky? I love it so much now. Our reading tastes and preferences change so much over time: I forget, sometimes, that this blog serves as a chronicle of my own personal Reading Evolution. Okay, that's enough Snow Day Philosophizing. Back to Hattie.
Book source: Review copy via Netgalley.
From the Hollywood Reporter:
Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are set to topline Fox 2000’s adaptation
of Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel The Book Thief.
French-Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse, who appeared in Monsieur Lahzar,
will make her English-language debut as the title character in the
World War II drama being directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey).
Please don't mess it up. Please don't mess it up. Pleasedontmessitup...
...I wrote about Laura L. Sullivan's Delusion:
This book made me snicker. A lot. As in Ladies in Waiting, the Albion girls are quite worldly—and they’re not above using their physical assets as powerful tools—and so some of that humor comes from subtle sexual innuendo, but there’s also humor that would be right at home in a Diana Wynne Jones book or in a Wodehousian farce.
Is it just me, by the way, or does the girl on the right look like Mena Suvari?
So, the description of The Rogue's Princess up at Amazon says that this is the last book in the Lacey Chronicles. To which I say: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! True enough, neither of the sequels has quite lived up to the awesomeness of The Other Countess, but it's still a super-fun series, and there are plenty of characters who deserve their own book.
For instance: Tobias, the youngest Lacey brother! Sure, he's a jackass, but jackasses deserve to find true love too, right? (Exhibit A. Exhibit B.) Or Ann Belknap, who is awesome and generous and hilarious, and also deserves a love story. And, heck, Mercy's sister Faith. She proved that there was more to her butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth demeanor, so I'd love to see her fall in love.
But, as usual, I digress.
Mercy Hart is the last person that Kit Turner—bastard son of the former Earl of Dorset—would have expected to fall head-over-heels in love with. She's a knockout, yes, and she's sweet and intelligent and adorably innocent, for sure... but she's also a devout Puritan. Not only did Kit swear off religion years ago (barely surviving an unwanted baptism in a horse trough performed by a raging mob will do that), but he's also an actor: which is a profession not held in high regard by the members of Mercy's church.
Or, for that matter, by her extremely strict father.
Like The Queen's Lady, The Rogue's Princess stars a character who was a secondary character in the previous book; provides news about the previous protagonists while working just fine as a stand-alone; and has a few historical cameos (no Sir Walter Raleigh, sadly, but James Burbage and William Shakespeare both appear). Also like the previous books, there is a secondary romance: this time, between Mercy's aunt Rose, an all-around awesome theatre-goer and "fallen woman" with a soft spot for fancy shoes who wishes her niece would occasionally live a little, and Silas Porter, a grizzled former soldier who also has a checkered past and wants to solve every problem by skewering someone. Despite my endless affection for Kit, I found Rose and Silas' blossoming romance far more adorable and satisfying than Kit and Mercy's.
The story goes everywhere that you'd expect: Mercy and Kit have many obstacles to overcome (including jailtime and a second suitor), but there's never any doubt that they'll get their happy ending. There's not much banter between the two principles—which is unfortunate, as one of the most enjoyable things about Kit's character is his habit of making dramatic, over-the-top speeches—but that makes sense within the context of the story and the characters, as Kit is well-aware that the extremely-sheltered Mercy might find his usual mode of expression somewhat overwhelming. Despite the lack of banter, though, quite a lot of humor comes across in other ways—She went pink with shy pleasure as she settled the lute on her lap. Kit tried not to imagine putting her in the same position on his.—and as usual, Eve Edwards provides lots of entertaining period color (like the sumptuary laws that dictated peoples' clothing choices according to class (!)).
Considering how awful Mercy's father is for the first three-quarters or so of the book, his SPOILER almost instantaneous about-face END SPOILER felt a bit unlikely, but I gave it a pass because I wanted my happy ending. While it's not a book that has inspired the same sort of gushing that I did about The Other Countess, it's still a solidly entertaining historical romance, and I really will miss the series if it's truly over for reals.
Book source: Review copy via Netgalley.
On the Ninth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing...
So, originally, I was going to highlight Bunheads, but then, since I did a ballet book for Day Seven, I switched things up here, too. Plus, Bunheads got way more buzz—if only because it was a Cybils finalist last year—than Ten Cents a Dance ever did.
Which is so sad! Because Ten Cents a Dance is great! Taxi dancers! 1940s slang! An up-and-coming gangster! Family drama, romantic drama, socioeconomic and political and cultural drama! Plus fabulous overall atmosphere and great period details make for a totally immersive reading experience about a heroine worth rooting for!
If you need more convincing (REALLY??), click on through to my slightly more in-depth review.
Book source: Review copy from the publisher.
On the Seventh Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming...
I was planning on covering Zoë Marriott's The Swan Kingdom today—it is, after all, based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Wild Swans—but at the last second, I've decided to point you to my old review (well, more semi-coherent gushing than an actual review, realy) of Eva Ibbotson's A Company of Swans. Which is about ballerinas, not swans, but: my list, my rules.
Anyway, if you're a fan of mostly-chaste, mostly-gentle, smart, adorable, swoony historical romances with ultra-likable heroines and ultra-awful antagonists and you HAVEN'T read Ibbotson's romances... well, get to it.
Book source: Review copy from the publisher.
$1.99 today: These Old Shades and the entire Judy Moody series!
(And, for that matter, Stephen King!)
On the Second Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtledoves...
Wow. Turtledoves are apparently few and far between in the YA, which is what prompted me to read my first—and based on this one, last—Harry Turtledove ever. To be fair, he usually writes for the adult audience, so it's possible that his regular fare reads differently.
Anyway, Gunpowder Empire is the first book in the Crosstime Traffic series, which is his series written specifically for younger readers. The series has a great premise: scientists discover alternate timelines, which allows Crosstime employees to, you know, cross time to other worlds to trade, snag new technologies, and take advantage of untapped natural resources. Gunpowder Empire focuses on Jeremy and Amanda Solters, Californian siblings from the late twenty-first century who are in the Roman Empire—a version of the Roman Empire that never fell—with their parents for the summer.
Shortly after they arrive, their mother falls ill and is forced to return to their hometime. With their father. And shortly after that, all communications from the 'real world' cease, and Jeremy and Amanda are stuck in Agrippan Rome... maybe forever.
(Why the father didn't just send his kids home with his wife—after all, if they're responsible enough to leave alone in an entirely different timeline, they're probably responsible enough to get their mother on a trans-timeline shuttlecraft and then to a hospital—I don't know.)
It's quite possible that Gunpowder Empire will go over especially well with fans of John Grisham's Theodore Boone series, regardless of age: it's got that same sense of fuzzy nostalgia and tends to gloss over any uncomfortable issues by either providing easy solutions or just not mentioning them. More specifically, it's also similar to Theo Boone in that it's an often-didactic adventure with a distinct avoidance of any profanity or sex that stars amazingly judgmental young protagonists who see issues in black and white, rather than in shades of gray.
A few of my issues:
• The worldbuilding is mostly achieved through conversations like this:
Jeremy: Derisive comment about his mother's love of old technology, followed by a list of all of the new technologies she could have used instead.
Michael (Jeremy's friend): Reply commiserating about same, followed by a list of the difficulties of being the child of a Crosstime employee.
...or through the omniscient narrator, who often provides historical context and commentary followed by a description of Jeremy or Amanda's thoughts on how crappy Agrippan Rome is.
• Based on his behavior and maturity level, I assumed that Jeremy was about twelve until page 88: when I was informed that he was seventeen. A classroom scene, in which the teacher asks questions of high school students that would have made more sense in a middle school setting, added to my confusion.
• It's hugely repetitive. I GET IT: REAL WAR IS NOT LIKE A VIDEO GAME. Also, Amanda can't go to the water fountain without a few sentences about the impossibility of carrying a jug of water on her head, and Jeremy is unable to see animal pelts without a diatribe about the evils of the fur industry. (A diatribe, I should add, that is never tempered by a mention of the fact that this culture doesn't have access to synthetics, mass production, or a lot of the other conveniences that make it easy for us to stay warm bloodlessly.)
• I don't understand why, if these kids are going to be sent to another world by a zillion-dollar corporation, they aren't given any sort of formal training/education about the culture beyond implants that teach them the language. It's possible that my background in anthropology is making me especially twitchy, but Jeremy and Amanda walk around this book constantly bagging on the beliefs and customs of this other world, without any real attempt at understanding anything in a context other than through the filters of their own worldview. It comes off as creepily jingoistic, and as there's never any sort of growth on the part of either protagonist, it seems that that's all portrayed as a good thing. Yecch.
Book source: ILLed through my library.
Texas, 1968. Jack Long recently left his job as the race reporter in San Antonio to take a job with a similar title in Houston... but as the political and racial landscape is so very different in Houston, it may as well be a completely different job. He's trying to cover the local SNCC protests but the young members aren't particularly eager to talk to (or trust) a white reporter. When he finds himself in a precarious situation while covering a rally, protester Larry Thompson helps him out by both defusing the situation and vouching for Jack's credibility.
The Long and Thompson families begin to see each other socially, a relationship that changes their own perspectives and breaks unmarked boundaries in the community. It also has a more far-reaching effect: when five black college students are accused of murdering a white police officer, the friendship between the Longs and the Thompsons ultimately affects the verdict.
Heavily based on author Mark Long's childhood memories, The Silence of Our Friends creates a portrait of a very specific time and place, but one that is likely to resonate with a broad spectrum of readers. That's because in addition to the larger civil rights plotline, there are so many moments depicted—kids getting to know each other, parents disagreeing on parenting techniques, the moment in which you realize that a friendship is over—that we've all either experienced or witnessed.
The artwork and dialogue both contribute to the stellar characterization, and while it portrays some ugly, ugly behavior, it doesn't really comment on or demonize it. It just shows it and lets it speak for itself: ugly and hateful, sometimes habitual and often unthinking. Similarly, Jack's drinking and Julie Long's visual impairment both have an impact on daily life, but both are portrayed as a regular part of life: no one ever sits down for a Afterschool Special heart-to-heart.
What I'm trying to say, in a very round-about way, is that everything in The Silence of Our Friends—Big Moments and seemingly small ones—feels true and real, and that it's very much worth reading. And, for that matter, re-reading.
Book source: ILLed through my library.
Read for the 7th Annual 48-Hour Book Challenge.
Lena Mattacascar has grown up knowing that she's different. People rarely let her unusually large hands and feet pass without comment, and those who are polite enough to avoid comment are rarely able to stop themselves from staring. So she's trained herself to hide her feet under her long skirts, to always wear gloves, and to avoid bringing attention to herself.
Her grandmother has always maintained that Lena inherited 'goblinism' from her deadbeat father, and that, like him, she is a Peculiar, doomed to develop a difficult—and possibly evil—personality due to her lack of soul.
On her eighteenth birthday, she receives a brief letter and a small inheritance from her father, and she decides to set out and find out, once and for all, who and what he is—and in so doing, who and what she is as well.
The Peculiars, as you may have guessed from the cover, is set in a steampunk-y version of our past. So it's the Victorian era—Lena loves Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain—but one with dirigibles and aerocopters. It's also a frontier novel, in that the majority of it is set on the edge of civilization, and much of the storyline and plotting involves a wilderness area—populated by outlaws, convicts, and supposedly, Peculiars—called Scree. Like some (and in my opinion, too few) other alt-histories, McQuerry includes a historical note at the end that describes some of the real-life people she included in her world, as well as some of the changes she made (for instance, in her world, the Pony Express is still up-and-running in 1888, whereas in our world, it was only in operation until 1861).
It's an atmospheric read, and the physical details of the world are especially vivid. I suspect that Lena will give some readers trouble, as she's got a bad case of self-loathing (understandably, given her upbringing), and she has a tendency to ignore her gut instinct (also understandable, given her insecurity) which leads her to make some big, big mistakes. Like I said, both of those aspects of her personality make sense, but they also make her company a bit difficult to enjoy wholeheartedly. That said, it's always a relief to read about a heroine who is different from her peers in a way that really would make her life more difficult, rather than being too beautiful or too talented or too badass or too witty or too all-around awesome. (<--Come on, you know I'm right. I'm looking at you, The Selection.)
Of course, there are two guys: the adorable-but-engaged Jimson Quiggley (a woefully untrained librarian) and the charming-but-possibly-untrustworthy Thomas Saltre (a U.S. marshal). Some of the side characters—Mrs. Mumbles the Scree-cat, Tobias Beasley, and Mrs. Pollet, especially—are reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones characters, but for the most part, I ultimately found that my interest in the book was more compelled by my curiosity about the world than by the characters or the storyline, which were pretty standard fare.
Nutshell: I'm not doing cartwheels, but a sequel appears, I'll read it.
Book source: ILL through my library.
So much, right?
So how excited are you to see THIS? (Picture via the HMH FB page):
...and am BEYOND OVERJOYED to see that, A) Farthing's being reprinted, and B) it has a new look:
HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS??:
HOLY COW, I AM SO VAIR VAIR EXCITED.
(If you haven't read the first book, READ IT!)
I'm talking, of course, about Philip Reeve's Larklight, which is a totally delightful read and, today only, a wicked steal at $1.99.
...I wrote about a book I was unable to finish, which is a rarity:
I rarely give up on books. That’s not due to any Reading Moral Code, I’m just a particularly stubborn person. When a book is amazingly terrible—as in, I can find no strengths whatsoever—I tend to keep reading simply because I’m fascinated. Literary rubbernecking, if you will.
...at the Guardian.
While we're talking about Ellen Klages: if you still haven't read The Green Glass Sea, do yourself a favor and get right on that, eh?
As I'm never one to turn down anything Wodehouse—and that goes triple for anything FREE and Wodehouse—so I just 'bought' the hell out of Whimsy & Soda.
Full disclosure: Do you have to bother with full disclosure when recommending free stuff? I dunno. Anyway, I used to work with the author's wife. And I interact with said author on the FB on a pretty regular basis, though we've never met in person.
The Wicked and the Just had me from the first page:
Tonight at supper, over capon and relish, my father ruined my life.
He smiled big, scrubbed his lips with the end of his cloak, and said, "We’re moving house."
"Thank the Blessed Virgin!" I sat up straighter and smoothed my kirtle. "I’m weary to thimbles of Coventry. Will we be back at Edgeley Hall in time for the Maypole?"
"No, sweeting. We’re not going back to Edgeley. We’re moving to Caernarvon."
"What in God’s name is that?"
"It’s a town in Wales."
I’m in my chamber now. I will never speak to him again.
Unless he buys me a new pelisson for the journey.
It's funny, because while the first page sounds a bit like a mash-up of Louise Rennison and Karen Cushman, and while there are undercurrents of humor in Cecily's voice almost all the way throughout (even though Cecily herself very often doesn't see the humorous side of what she's saying), the tone of the book—and the storyline—is ultimately quite dark.
And by quite dark, I mean VERY VERY DARK INDEED. It's set in Caernarvon, Wales, during the 1290s: which, as the author said in her Historical Note at the end, "was a great place to live—as long as you were English."
At the beginning of the story, Cecily is a spoiled, entitled rich girl, and her move to Wales only serves to make her behavior and attitude worse. She is, after all, miserable. She's in a new, unfamiliar place, and she's suddenly at the bottom of the social hierarchy (well, higher than the Welsh, but they don't count): so she takes her misery, discomfort, and rage out on servants and anyone else in her way... as long as they're of a lower rank than her. Which is, to say the least, a massively unattractive trait in a protagonist. It's quite possible that some readers will find her so extremely unpleasant to be around that they won't finish the book. She's that hateful for that long.
However. While that's a completely understandable reaction, those readers will be missing out. Because The Wicked and the Just is a pretty damn super book. Cecily's narrative is regularly interrupted by chapters narrated by her new servant, Gwenhwyfar (Cecily refers to her as Gwinny):
Now it's spring, English are here, and I could kill the brat a hundred different ways.
Could strangle her with one of her foolish ribbons. Dump hemlock in her breakfast porridge. Push her down the stairs. Would be no different than killing a rat.
She is English.
The lot of them should burn.
Gwenhwyfar is just as angry as Cecily—it could be argued that she's more so, actually—but while Cecily is angry for purely selfish reasons, the source of Gwinny's rage is much easier to empathize with: she's seen her land conquered and co-opted by the English, who mistreat, abuse, and cheat the Welsh at every opportunity. Although there are occasional moments of warmth and humor, from her perspective, life is dirty, smelly, violent, unyielding and unfair.
It would be very wrong, though, to suggest that either Cecily or Gwenhwyfar can be easily categorized as simply purely awful or purely saintly—Cecily treats her servants horribly, yes, but she also stands up for people when she sees them being treated unfairly (as long as it isn't her who's doing the mistreating), and forgiveness is not something that comes at all easily to Gwenhwyfar. They both do a lot of learning and growing over the course of the book, but the change always feels both organic and possible: there are no miracles here.
Although The Wicked and the Just is set in a very specific place during a very specific time and depicts very specific events, it's much more character-driven than story-driven, and much more Day-in-the-Life than Major Event. The author avoids platitudes or easy answers, and, in a move that might not be popular with some (especially younger) readers, stays true to the characters rather than taking Ye Olde Romance Cures All Ills route.
Good stuff. It definitely won't be to everyone's tastes—it's certainly not the sort of book that ever becomes a blockbuster—but I suspect its fans will be both devoted and vocal.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.
El Paso, 1987.
Despite being polar opposites—outgoing/restrained, gregarious/quiet, open/shut, only child/youngest of many, pacifist/fighter—fifteen-year-olds Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana are good friends from the moment they meet:
"What are you allergic to?"
"The air," he said.
That made me laugh.
"My name's Dante," he said.
That made me laugh harder. "Sorry," I said.
"It's okay. People laugh at my name."
"No, no," I said. "See, it's just that my name's Aristotle."
His eyes lit up. I mean, the guy was ready to listen to every word I said.
"Aristotle," I repeated.
Then we both kind of went a little crazy. Laughing.
Through the war of the shoes, through illness and heroism, through a year-long separation, through challenging life changes and realizations, they remain friends. Closer at some points that at others, but always friends. At some point, though, it becomes clear that Dante's feelings for Ari have blossomed into something more complicated than best-friendship... and both of them are eventually going to have to come to terms with that, regardless of the emotional walls that Ari's been living behind for so many years.
I love the cover on this one: see how the artwork on each side of the title is representative of Ari and Dante? (The truck parked in the middle of nowhere is a detail right out of the book as well!) Nice job with that, Simon & Schuster.
It's not going to win over every reader who picks it up. Reason the First: the boys take a long time to get where they're going, and while that pacing is true to the story and the characters, some readers are likely to lost interest. Reason the Second: Ari's tendency to hold everyone (including himself) at arm's length may make it difficult to form an emotional connection with him. And Reason the Second, Part B: Sáenz clearly has confidence in his characters, their story, and in his readers, because he never tips his hand. Ari is Ari, from the first page to the last, and Ari is the opposite of an open book... which, depending on taste, could definitely make for a frustrating reading experience.
Me, I liked it. A lot. I loved how the book dealt with Ari and Dante's extremely different feelings about their Mexican heritage without making it into a Heavy Issue:
"We're not really Mexicans. Do we live in Mexico?
"But that's where our grandparents came from."
"Okay, okay. But do we actually know anything about Mexico?"
"We speak Spanish."
"Not that good."
"Speak for yourself, Dante. You're such a pocho."
"What's a pocho?"
"A half-assed Mexican."
"Okay, so maybe I'm a pocho. But the point I'm making here is that we can adopt other cultures."
But I also loved how it didn't dismiss those feelings about family and family history and so on as irrelevant or unimportant. In terms of conflict, those issues very definitely take a backseat to sexuality identity, but they're no less important in terms of the characters' worldviews or their ultimate growth.
And you know the simple-yet-profound thing? When authors are capable of capturing a huge feeling with just a few words? Sáenz nails that again and again:
So I was the son of a man who had Vietnam living inside him. Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn't help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.
A lot goes on in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, in terms of both plot and emotion, and yet, because of Ari's voice—which, even internally, is extremely restrained—it feels like a very sedate, calm read*. While the dialogue often feels scripted—like in some plays and old movies—it works. When combined with everything else in the book—voice, storyline, setting, and era—it just feels right.
*How many commas are in that sentence? SIX? That's excessive, even for me.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.
I admit that if Never Fall Down wasn't a 2012 Cybils nominee (and a 2012 National Book Award finalist), it's quite likely that I'd have continued avoiding it... well, forever. I tend to avoid books that focus on the atrocities that human beings have committed (and continue to commit) on members of our own species*, even though I'm fully aware that those stories also tend to highlight some of the best things that we are capable of: courage, sacrifice, generosity, empathy, kindness, and hope.
So, yeah, a book about one boy's experiences during the rise and reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—a period of time in which a quarter of the population was murdered by their own countrymen—is not a book I'd naturally gravitate towards. And knowing that it's a novel largely based on the real-life experiences of Arn Chorn-Pond—a human rights activist and a co-founder of Children of War and the Cambodian Living Arts—didn't make reading it any easier**.
Arn lives in Battambang, Cambodia, with his aunt, his brother and four sisters. He sneaks out of the temple school and into movies, he makes money by selling ice cream and occasionally gambling. His family used to have more money, but after their father died in a motorcycle accident, life changed.
When the Khmer Rouge takes over, that ends up being a bit of a blessing:
Three day go by and this guy never come back. The dirt pile in the woods, every day it get bigger. They don't explain, but I figure what they doing. They kill everyone who used to be rich or high ranking. Anyone with education. All the soldier, the teacher, the doctor, the musician. Anyone poor, no problem. World is upside down. Being rich now is no good. Bring poor, this can save your life.
I could go into the details of the storyline—the forced marches, the child soldiers, the starvation, the violence, the death after death after death—but I feel like this passage kind of encapsulates the horror depicted in this book:
One night the girl next to me at dinner, she dies. She dies just sitting there. No sound. Just no breathing anymore. All of us, we eat so fast, no one ever see this girl. Very quick, I take her bowl of rice and keep eating.
So often, authors write—and we read—survival stories for pure entertainment. As you may have gathered, Never Fall Down doesn't read like that: rather, it reads as testimony from someone who witnessed (and survived) something that just shouldn't be. And, as with Between Shades of Gray last year, in reading it, it makes us witnesses as well, albeit a few very large steps removed.
It's not a book that is at all comfortable to read, and it's one that plenty of people—myself included—will find it much easier to avoid than to face... but pretending that these horrors don't exist in our world only serves to help the people who commit them.
*Let's not even go into the stuff human beings have done to other species, or I'll just start crying right now. I am so scared of reading that bonobo book.
**Or, to be fair, harder. I don't tend to treat fiction and nonfiction on emotionally different levels.***
***NO, DAD, SAYING "OH, IT'S JUST A BOOK/MOVIE/SONG" IS NOT HELPFUL. (<--We've been having that argument ever since he tried to console my post-Outsiders eleven-year-old self by saying, "Oh, it's only a book. It's not real." And then, when I refused to be swayed by his so-called logic, threatened to flush the book down the toilet. That story gets trotted out on a regular basis at Ye Olde Bonfires. And probably here. Apologies to anyone who's already heard it fifty-seven times.)
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season AND because it's a 2012 National Book Award finalist.
...I wrote about Janet Fox's Sirens:
The issues raised in this book—which, remember, is set almost 100 years ago—are frighteningly similar to many of those raised in the most recent election cycle. While that may sound scary and depressing, it isn’t. Rather, by the end, Sirens is a celebration of girl power, sisterhood, and hope for the future.
"If you see Buddy, tell him I hate him," Cheryl calls from the door.
Mrs. O'Brien looks at us. "Did Cheryl break up with Buddy?"
"A long time ago, Ma," Ellie says. "She has a much nicer boyfriend now."
Mrs. O'Brien takes our empty cereal bowls to the sink. "I'm glad to hear it. I never liked that boy. He has a sneaky look. I'm surprised Cheryl's parents didn't send him packing long ago."
"They tried," Ellie says, "but you know how Cheryl is. She kept seeing him anyway. But not anymore. Now she hates him. And he hates her."
Mrs. O'Brien sighs. "What heartless girls you are." She smiles when she says it, so we know she's joking.
"Maybe we should drive down to the park and find out what's going on. Didn't you notice the ambulances and cop cars coming up Eastern Avenue?"
I light a cigarette. "An accident on Route Forty or something. Happens all the time."
There's nothing else to do, so we get in my car and head for the park. Just in case there's something to see. Just in case Cheryl is there. I grip the wheel a little tighter. Who am I kidding? She won't be there. She's gone somewhere with Ralph in that big goddamn fancy convertible he drives. Girls—is that all they want?
He wonders what Ellie and her friend told the detectives. What's her name—Nora, the tall one who laughs too loud. She was there the night of the party too. She must have slept at Ellie's that night because they'd walked to school together the next day. He'd watched from his hiding place in the woods. Stupid girls. If they'd been with Cheryl and Bobbi Jo, they'd be dead too.
I realize I may have gotten semi-overzealous with the quotes this time around, but Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls just begs for it. Mary Downing Hahn, I'm sorry for fangirling here, BUT OH MY GOD I LOVE YOU. And to those of you who still have any doubts at all about Mary Downing Hahn's capital-L Literary chops, LOOK NO FURTHER.
This book—set in June, 1956—captures both the era and the season. You know it's June not just because the author tells you, but because it feels like June: you can feel the long days, warm evenings, and the imminent end of school. You know it's 1956 not only because you're told that but because it feels right: there are descriptive details about music and clothing, but those only serve to enhance the atmosphere, not to create it.
It was inspired by a true story: there was a similar incident that the author was a witness to (in the way that Nora is a witness) in 1955, and it's clear from both the Author's Note at the end and from the storyline itself that it's an event that affected her deeply. It works as a mystery, as a coming of age story, as a meditation on the nature of suspicion, and an empathetic imagining of how an unsolved mystery can haunt those involved—both witnesses and suspects—for life.
Easily cross-shelvable in the YA and the adult mystery section. GOOD STUFF.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.
Speaking of themed gifts (weren't we?), Shadow on the Mountain and Bomb would be a great pair to give to a young history buff. A young history buff who is proud of his or her Scandinavian heritage.
Sometimes I really wish I'd known Josh when he was a kid. Because, BAM. I'd have had the perfect Christmas present for his eleven-year-old self.
Right, right, Shadow on the Mountain.
Shortly after the Nazis invade his country, fourteen-year-old Espen gets involved with the Norwegian Resistance movement. At first, he's simply delivering illegal newspapers—I say 'simply', but even reading information that the Nazis had deemed illegal would get you arrested, let alone distributing it—but he gets older and more experienced, he takes on more and more dangerous assignments.
The major characters in the book are fictional—there are some appearances and mentions of historical figures, though—but the events are based in reality, and Espen's Resistance-related activities and adventures are based on the real-life exploits of a man named Erling Storrusten. At the end of the book, Preus includes information about how she did her research, as well as an extensive bibliography, a timeline of events, and a selection of related photos and pictures.
In addition to including loads of cool details about small-town Norwegian life in the 1940s, she does a great job of conveying the gallows humor of the time (and the culture):
"Did you see the latest poster?" Leif said. "It says, 'Every civilian caught with weapon in hand will be SHOT . . . Anyone destroying constructions serving the traffic and military blah-blah-blah will be SHOT . . . Anyone using weapons contrary to international law will be SHOT.'"
"Ja, I saw that," Espen said. "On the bottom of the poster someone had written, 'Anyone who has not already been shot will be SHOT.'"
...but also makes it clear that these people are laughing despite fear and uncertainty and pain:
They laughed, and Espen did, too, sort of, but it made him feel sick. All these soldiers everywhere, always with guns, their metal helmets, the tramping of their boots—walking in and out of the stores, up and down the streets. . .
There's a wonderful balance between Espen's Resistance activities (along with the knowledge that if he's caught, his family will be punished for his actions); his younger sister's interest in his activities, which ultimately leads to her own direct involvement with the Resistance; the split that occurs within his peers between those who join the Resistance and those who join the Nazis; and his own coming of age and burgeoning romance.
Good stuff—and an effective reminder that "regular" people are capable of changing the course of world events.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.
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The Grand Sophy is $1.99 today.
Heads up, though: this is the one semi-famous for the monstrously offensive antisemitism. (Seriously, it's so over-the-top bad that you'd think it was a parody... but it's not.)
Readers deal with it in any number of ways: reading straight through, eyes popping at the horror (made even worse by the fact that the book was originally published in 1950, post-WWII); skipping Chapter Eleven entirely; skipping the whole book.