Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction

cover image for Karen MemoryKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memery, like most citizens in Rapid City, is just trying to do what she can to get by, and maybe even save a little something for a better future.  But Fate has other plans for her.  Like falling in love, helping a US Marshal catch his man, and preventing a villain’s treasonous plot.

There ever so are many things to love about Karen Memory.  Its steampunk Wild West setting, Karen’s  practical and distinctive personality, and of course the developing relationship between Karen and Priya.  Most especially the way Karen falls so quickly and so hard, yet doesn’t let herself push Priya (who is suffering from trauma and worry for her sister) for more than she might want or be capable of.

I think what I like best about it though is the way that its fictionalized historical setting, rather than being used once again as an excuse to focus on the usual suspects or to write characters and situations that reinforce modern bigotry, becomes instead a way to highlight the truth that we – that all of us – have always been here all along.  Karen’s occupation as “seamstress” (and the tongue in cheek way that she talks about providing sexual services) works in tandem with this argument by demonstrating that respectable society’s views of those so often only written into the margins of history books has little to do with their lives, capabilities, and impact.

Karen Memory was originally conceived as a young adult novel (Karen herself is in her late teens), and it makes me incredibly sad and frustrated that the market is such that it instead was published under an adult imprint.  I believe it still works as a young adult novel – especially for older teens – and so I strongly encourage my fellow YA librarians to make sure your adult section has it handy for recommendations.  Need a book that has adventure, romance, mystery, friendship, lgbtqia content, characters from several different racial and ethnic backgrounds, steampunk contraptions, shootouts, and deals spectacularly well with sexual assault and consent?  Here is your book.

I just want to add two more content notes about Karen Memory, for my fellow librarians in particular:

First, that there were a few bits about Tomoatooah, the US Marshal’s posseman, that made me wish I could find a review of the book from someone more familiar with Comanche culture and Native American stereotypes in American literature.  He is very much a fully realized character, and is not portrayed in an intentionally negative light.  But some aspects of how he was written had me wishing I had a more knowledgable opinion to consult.

Secondly, I want to clarify that while much of the story takes place in a brothel, there is no actual depiction of sexual acts. Sex, sexual services, and sexual assault are all discussed – when it affects the characters and plot.  All of which I consider appropriate for teens.  But despite the setting, Karen Memory has no soft-core, male-gaze, porn-like descriptions of female characters or sexual acts, unlike a great many other adult SSF novels that are themselves recommended to teens all the time.

cover image for Court of FivesCourt of Fives by Kate Elliot

Jes and her three sisters couldn’t be more different, and they fight and squabble as siblings do. Yet when it comes down to it, they’ve got each others backs.  Which is fortunate, as she needs their help to do what she loves best: training for the Fives, a sport that requires quick thinking, agility, stamina, and strength.  But when Jes’ father returns from war, her plans to finally compete – something he would never approve of – are thrown in disarray.  Soon the rest of her life is as well, and Jes will need to use all of the skills that make her a great athlete to keep her family safe.

full disclosure, before I get into WHY THIS BOOK IS SO AWESOME AND YOU SHOULD READ IT:acknowledgements page from Court of Fives

(yeah, I really just put that there bc: OMG)

I adore Kate Elliot’s books, and Court of Fives is no exception.  I’ve been eager to see how/what she does with YA, and now that I have I’m so very glad she did.  I love the way that Elliot handles Jes as an athlete, and her relationships with her sisters.  And I especially love that she made Jes’ social standing so complex, that it’s not as simple as her family being rich and her father having status, nor simply that Jes and her sisters are biracial in an extremely racist society.

And I really, really, really, would love to go into more detail about WHY this book is so awesome, but it’s not coming out for another half a year, and I may want to pitch a longer/actual review.  SO YOU WILL ALL JUST HAVE TO WAIT.

Sorry! I know you all hate me now. I promise I will rave about this book in much more detail this summer, closer to when it comes out.

cover image for The Agency: A Spy in the HouseThe Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

Twelve year old Mary Quinn was supposed to hang for her crime.  Instead she was given a chance to start a new life as a pupil at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.   Now, five years later, seventeen year old Mary Quinn knows that she should be grateful for everything she has been given – and she is – yet the idea of spending her life as a tutor at the school or as a maid in someone else’s house fills Mary with dread rather than hope.  She’s not afraid of work, but she can’t help wishing that there were other options out there for an young lady with education but no family or fortune.  Then, for the second time in her life, she’s given a once in a lifetime opportunity – this time, to be trained as a spy.  But can Mary keep not only the Agency’s secrets safe, but also the Agency from learning the truth about her own heritage?

This book has so many awesome moments. It also, unfortunately, has a bit too much boyfriend and not enough roller derby for my tastes.*  Still, it’s a lovely book that manages to be delightfully surprising in many ways.  It also does a wonderful job of handling Mary’s secret, which happens to be that [she’s biracial, passing for white. Also, that her mother sometimes earned her way as a sex worker.]   Mary’s status, situation, and relationships make this book a refreshing contrast to the more typical young adult novels set in Victorian London, which tend to be about young ladies of a certain social class, and treat the few non-white characters in them as oddities and visitors rather than Londoners.

*the phrase is from lj user buymeaclue.  I’d link, but the journal is now friendslocked. :p

cover image for Shin-chi's CanoeShin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. Campbell, illustrated by Kim LaFave

When Shi-shi-etko and her younger brother, Shin-chi, are sent to a residential school, they have to leave not only their parents behind, but also the names their parents gave them as well.  The siblings are sent to separate dormitories and not allowed to speak to each other, or in their native language.  But before they are forced to part, Shi-Shi-etko gives Shin-chi a small toy canoe, to remind him of the family who loves him, and that one day will all be together again.

This is not a happy book, but it is a beautiful book. A lovely, sad story about colonialization and destruction, and strength and importance of family.  All told with gorgeous text and illustrations.

cover image for Stanley the FarmerStanley the Farmer by William Bee

Stanley the Hamster spends a busy day on his farm.  With help from friends, he manages to get everything done.

(ok, for the record, unbound galleys of picture books are weird. now, moving on…)

A simple, cute story, that condenses the time needed to grow and harvest, but has bright pictures and the right amount of detail for small children.

cover image for Blue on BlueBlue on Blue by Dianne White, illustrated by Beth Krommes

Cotton clouds.
Morning light.
Blue on blue.
White on white.

A peaceful, sunny day is interrupted by rain and thunder and lightning, but before the day is done, the sun comes back to say goodbye and goodnight.

It’s a very nice book, and decent enough poem, and I love Krommes’ style (with the exception of some of the peoples’ facial expressions).

cover image for The Nine TailorsThe Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

When bad weather causes Lord Peter Whimsey’s car to miss a bridge and drive off the road instead, it leads to a chance encounter with a rector named Mr. Venables,  Which later leads to Mr. Venables writing to Lord Peter for help when the wrong corpse is found in a local grave.

Oh, and there’s lots of stuff about church bells.

The Nine Tailors is very much “of it’s time” – this isn’t a style of writing that you’d find in any modern novel (that I can think of).  It may be harder for some readers to get through, but I rather liked it.  I especially loved how multi-dimensional and opinionated all the women were – something that is lacking in far too many novels, recent or otherwise, especially ones with male protagonists.

There are a few times where modern readers may want to shout at the characters “haven’t you ever seen a TV mystery before?” …and then quickly remember that of course they haven’t, and neither had Sayer’s contemporary audience.  But the book still managed to keep me guessing and turning the pages, despite that.

I’m also enough of a nerd that I loved the mystery surrounding the coded letters and also the math of how the bells were rung (even if it took me most of the book to realize how it worked).

cover image for The Freedom MAzeThe Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Thirteen year old Sophie longs for an adventure like the ones she reads about in books. But instead, she’s stuck spending the summer of 1960 with her aunt and bedridden grandmother, in a smallish house at the edge of what was once a grand sugar plantation.  So she passes time reading books and exploring the bayou, waiting for fall to come.  Until the day she attempts to find her way through the once magnificent hedge maze, and finds something unexpected at the other end.

This is not a book that I can be objective about, in any way.

My maternal grandfather’s family comes from Georgia.  My mother grew up in the south – the deep south – in the 1950s and 1960s.  Until she turned 13 and her family moved to California, finally to stay.

In the Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman has written a story that doesn’t often get told. A story about family ties denied and forgotten – and others that are unbreakable even against the greatest of odds.  About what the antebellum south was really like – and about what it means to be nostalgic for a time when owning other people was legal.

I feel like she’s telling me the story of my family that no one ever admits to.

My uncles will joke about being taught about “the War of Northern Aggression.”  And my mother has rarely ever looked as sad as she did when I asked her, incredulously, if her hometown had separate water fountains when she was growing up.  But it always feels like there’s so much missing.  So much left unsaid.

My family would not find it flattering that I see us in these pages, but oh how I do.

It’s true that in making this story about Sophie, Sherman has centered Sophie’s point of view and growing awareness of her privilege over the the experiences and courage of her newly discovered family.  Which is frustrating for obvious reasons.

And yet…

And yet I know that this is a story that needs to be told as well.  My niece needs to grow up understanding what it means that her family is from the south.  It’s not enough that she maybe sort of learn it once she’s an adult.

And I don’t know how to explain it to her, in large part because I don’t really have that understanding myself.

But I can give her this book.

cover image for The Fly on the WallFly on the Wall by E. Lockhart

Gretchen Yee knows that the way to fit in at her alternative arts focused high school is to stand out, but she can’t quite manage to stop getting noticed for the wrong things.  In fact, her problems just keep piling up: Boys baffle her.  All of them, really – but especially Titus.  Her drawing teacher is less than appreciative of the comic book style art she favors.  Then there’s the news that her parents are getting a divorce, and her dad is moving out.

In a moment of frustration, Gretchen wishes that she could be a fly on the wall in the boys locker room, to see what they are like when they aren’t around girls. Maybe then she could at least figure boys out.  Then she gets her wish. Literally.

I can’t overemphasis how weird this book is.  Because yes, it’s a remake of metamorphosis, set in an alternative high school in New York City.  It’s also fun and quite brilliant, tackles bullying, friendship, and of course dealing with crushes, lust, and hormones.

Needless to say, Gretchen spying on the boys is hardly an appropriate thing to do, but she’s a fly o the wall and therefore has remarkable peripheral vision and she’s trapped in the room – not peeking through holes in the wall.  Most importantly, Lockhart handles the situation really well, both in terms of Gretchen’s decisions and how the boys are treated by the narrative.

cover image for Our Only May AmeiliaOur Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

May Amelia is the only girl in her family, and she just so happens to also be the only girl among the pioneers who have settled along the Nasel River in the new state of Washington.  Being the only girl isn’t always easy, especially when her mother keeps trying to turn her into a Proper Young Lady, and her grandmother finds fault in everything she does.  But no matter how many scrapes she gets into, she’s still the only May Ameilia they’ve got.

May Ameilia’s voice is really what makes this book work as well as it does. Her syntax, phrasing, and perspective transports readers to a different time and place.  Inspired by a journal Holm found that was kept by one of her own ancestors, the novel is told in first person and covers a year or so in May Amelia’s life.  Solid and entertaining, Our Only May Amelia isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it manages to be unique and memorable.

I also want to note that there’s not any significant discussion of the impact that pioneer settlement had on the people who were already living in the area when the settlers came, as it’s told from May Amelia’s point of view.  The narrative is respectful of the rare Native American characters in the book, but of course not everyone in the story is.  I didn’t see anything that makes the book inappropriate for youngsters (although I’m also hardly the best judge) but a follow-up discussion with readers would be appropriate if possible, especially considering how rare Native American voices are in most library collections.

cover image for Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Nothing newsworthy happens in Lily, Arkansas. Families scrape by – or don’t, and leave their loved ones to grieve.  But reporters begin to descend upon the small town when someone claims to have spotted the Lazarus Woodpecker, previously thought extinct.  For seventeen year old Cullen the return of the Lazarus Woodecker is merely a source of irritation and occasional amusement.  Until his younger brother, Gabriel, disappears and Cullen is left wondering if Gabriel will ever manage to find his way back home as well.

Like a lot of coming of age stories of this type, Where Things Come Back felt like it was trying too hard to be clever and introspective.  Also, the split in narrators was confusing (I suspect it was partly meant to be) and the missionary’s point of view felt forced rather than authentic. I know a lot of people loved it (it did win the Printz award after all) but I was more than happy to send my copy back to the library.

cover image for Zora and MeZora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

Everyone in Eatonville, Florida knows there’s something special about Zora. But no one else in town knows her quite like her two best friends, Carrie and Teddy, do.  Together, the three spend all the spare time they have exploring, getting into one mischief or another, and – of course – listening to Zora’s stories.  When a man turns up dead on railroad tracks not long after Zora talks of seeing an alligator man in the swamp, no one believes her.  Except Carrie and Teddy, of course.  So it’s up to the young trio to get the bottom of the mystery before more people get hurt.

I was skeptical at first of the premise of the story: focusing on the childhood of a famous person; books like that can often be rather generic and present a very standardized and inaccurate view of history.  Instead this lovely, slim novel is full of detail and nuance, of complications and implications.  The language is just absolutely beautiful, a fitting tribute to Hurston’s work, and yet it’s still readable by the middle graders it’s marketed to.  Highly recommended.  This should be in every public library’s collection.

cover image for Pusheen the CatI Am Pusheen the Cat by Claire Belton

Inside this book you will find Pusheen the Cat’s guide to petting, acquiring treats, sleeping, and much more. Round, silly, and adorable, Pusheen is a delightful teacher with personality and opinions to spare.

This is a bit of an odd book in that it doesn’t quite fit into normal categories – it’s the kind of book that would simply be labeled as a “gift” book in most bookstores.  Children may enjoy it, but much of the humor references adult experiences. Many adults may enjoy it too, but the format and illustration style makes it look more like a  children’s book.  Still, it’s entertaining and I’m glad I read – and it would, indeed, make a fun gift a great many cat lovers.

cover image for Cold FireCold Fire by Tamora Pierce

Daja, and her mentor Frostpine, have come to the northern city of Kugisko so that the latter may visit with old friends.  Their restful trip is soon interrupted, of course. In turns out that their hosts’ twin daughters are natural mages, and since it was Daja who discovered their gifts, it’s up to her to make sure that they are trained properly.  Frostpine has troubles of his own to take care of, as he’s asked by the governor to look into counterfeit coins – preferable before the public finds out and panic ensues.  And both mages are worried about the mysterious fires that appear to be accidents, but seem to keep happening more frequently than is normal.

This wasn’t a bad book, in fact I think I liked it best of this second quartet so far.  Daja’s characterization is a good mixture of older-than-before yet-still-very-young and this story has a nice mix of cultures and customs.  Unfortunately, it’s far from Pierce’s best.  Also, I was tired of the plot idea of our four friends discovering natural mages – and being required to become teachers themselves – before I was finished with the first book.