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Doc: A NovelDoc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Russell can do some amazing things with character and setting, and her prose style is nothing to sneeze at either. Which explains why I picked up a book about historical figures that I knew nothing about. I mean, I’d heard to Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, but I literally had no idea what happened to them, why they’re famous, or how their stories played out. I intentionally didn’t look them up because I wanted to be surprised as the story unfolded.

Russell certainly makes them stand on their own as fascinating characters, so having no preconceptions worked just fine.  However, the end of the book totally fell flat since she did a lot of hinting/foreshadowing about the incidents that made them famous, but she never took us through those famous moments – they were only mentioned in what felt like a rushed conclusion. It’s a good book, but I might not have been the right reader for it.

Source: my public library

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The American HeiressThe American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found the story engrossing – mostly because I was trying to figure out if it would end up as a tragedy or a romance, but also because many of the period details tied in with other things I’ve been reading and *cough* Masterpiece Theatre productions. There were plenty of similarities to The Buccaneers, which I must confess to watching, not reading. Other things tied in with details of Victorian life from At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which I’m currently listening to.

Unfortunately, I never found the characters particularly appealing – we had plenty of insight into Cora’s mind, but I never found her very sympathetic, and neither was Bertha. Ivo remained an enigma for most of the story, and the resolution was a bit tidy. Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and its atmosphere – recommended if you like these kinds of period dramas.

Source: public library

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Inside Out and Back AgainInside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

The story is nicely evocative of all of the things Ha misses when her family leaves Vietnam. The free verse form heightens the emotions and lets the historical facts fade into the backdrop – while certain times, places and historical figures are mentioned, the emotions could translate to any refugee situation. The ending felt a little abrupt, but otherwise the book was strong.

There’s a brief note from the author talking more about why she wrote the book than adding any historical facts – curious kids might want to seek out more information on Vietnam and the war, especially if, like me, they have had almost no exposure to it in school.

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Bird in a BoxBird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney

A story from the Great Depression in three voices – Hibernia, Otis and Willie. I loved the tone – although I didn’t notice it at the time, it’s told in present tense. More noticeable are the distinct voices and personalities of each character, with their own heartbreaks and hopes. I loved Otis’ riddles in particular. It takes a little while before the three stories connect around more than just following Joe Louis’ boxing matches, but I enjoyed the ride. I did wonder why the story started in 1937 and then moved back to 1936 – it never felt like a necessary shift in time and only distracted me – but it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise solid story.

Source: ARC from publisher

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RevolutionRevolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Here’s what I had to say about the print version, which I read in November:

“Oh, wow. Jam-packed with musical references, old and new, details of Paris now and Paris during the French Revolution, visits to the catacombs, artifacts ,writing and hearts (literally), with a main character who’s so broken it hurts, yet whose story you can’t put down. Gripping. Totally gripping, and the kind of big YA novel I love to find, and completely different in scope from Donnelly’s other novels.”

Rereading it on audio was no less gripping than the first time around. Even though I knew where the story was going, I still felt suspense and anxiety for the characters. It’s a big book and I sped through it the first time, so it was nice to revisit it and pick up more details and, of course, foreshadowing. The two readers (one for Andi, one for Alex) were great and that made it easy to keep track (especially if you tend to listen in little snippits in the car, like I often do, although with this one I kept taking it inside to listen to while I cooked – a sure sign I’m hooked).

Source: my library system

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Forge (Seeds of America, #2)Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

Although I found Chains underwhelming, perhaps due to all the hype, I found myself much more engrossed with Forge, the companion/sequel. The point of view shifts from Isabel to Curzon and follows, naturally, his time spent with the Continental Army at Valley Forge. The story manages to give a sense of the bigger picture of what’s happening to the army – Curzon is recaptured by his master for a time, serving officers of the army and allowing both he and the reader to glean information. But Anderson also keeps the story personal in its details, with Curzon’s interactions with other soldiers, his sense of conscience at shooting and killing, the struggle to find and keep shoes during the winter, the pitiful meals, and so on. We also get another perspective on Isabel, and of course things are set up for a third book. Recommended to fans of grittier historical fiction (it might be a nice companion to Woods Runner, although the character development is stronger in Forge) or readers interested in the Revolutionary War.

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Another effort to put my currently-reading list into order.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but I actually do read books written for grown-ups.  Sometimes they slow me down, since I’m used to quicker, shorter books, but I whizzed through this batch fairly quickly – especially The Help and Blackout.  I’ve been getting into the summer reading spirit, what with all of the kids signing up and getting prizes at the library, and it’s been fun having big fat novels that I can sink into.
Juliet, Naked Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

An enjoyable read, filled with the same blend of humor and realism as most of Hornby’s books. Not something that’s particularly stuck with me, but satisfying and funny in the moment. I appreciate Hornby’s willingness to avoid any pat resolutions.

Source: my library system

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

I’ve never gotten the fascination with the Salem witch trials, but this story managed to hook me by starting from a different angle. In the main storyline, a historian in the early 90s finds clues leading her to a previously undiscovered primary source, while flashbacks show us the lives of women descended from one of the books early owners, Deliverance Dane. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in either the witch trials or in stories focused on historical discoveries. The resolution was a bit anti-climactic for me, but I definitely enjoyed the ride, and Katherine Kellgren’s reading was, as usual, spot-on.

Source: my library system

A Study in Scarlet A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

This was my first venture into a Sherlock Holmes novel, although I read a few short stories a while back. It’s easy, of course, to see Holmes’ influence on other fictional detectives, and the mystery was the sort where the reader couldn’t possibly solve it from the clues given, but it was fun to go along for the ride with Watson. The only downside to the story was the extensive flashback to the American West that really bogged things down.

Source: my library system

The Help The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Books with 200+ holds don’t usually live up to the hype…or maybe I just assume they won’t and never put them on hold. In this case, I’m glad I waited. The story follows three women in Mississippi in the early 1960s – two black maids and one white woman just out of college. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of any of the viewpoints, it certainly rings true and is compelling in a way that’s never forced or cheesy. It gives a glimpse into the way things were and the reasons it was so hard to change things. Definitely recommended to anyone looking for a novel with compelling characters, a vivid setting, and plenty of meat on its bones.

Source: my library system

Blackout Blackout by Connie Willis

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the fact that I have to wait until the fall for the conclusion. I would’ve happily broken my back carrying around a massive single volume, if only it meant I could spend more time with the characters and find out what happens. As usual, the book has Willis’ brisk, almost frantic pace, and uses time travel to illuminate history. Unlike in some of her other time travel novels, we don’t get to flip back to the “present day” along the way – like the historians, we’re stuck in 1940s England. This serves the plot, but it also makes the historical elements that much more engrossing. Instead, the story is broken up by switching points of view, following three main characters. A few other characters are thrown in, but I’ll have to wait until All Clear comes out to see their significance.

I have a few theories about things, but I mostly just enjoying the story too much to stop and think about them. Several clues were dropped early on but left hanging, presumably to be resolved in All Clear – I know she’ll follow through. In addition to the full of wondering how all the plot-lines will converge, the story is also satisfying as a piece of historical fiction, bringing alive London during the Blitz. While I’ve read other books set during that time, Willis is the best at putting you there.

Not a work of literary genius, but a perfect couldn’t-put-it-down summer read.

Source: my library system

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Since I’m completely behind on my little obsessive-compulsive habit of writing something about each book I finish (although I guess it’s not completely compulsive if I’m this far behind), I thought I’d catch up in batches, with not-quite-as-much said about each book.  This batch: historical fiction for kids.

Alchemy and Meggy Swann Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

This is one of those books that pulls you into the past with smells, sounds, tastes, and Shakespearean curses. It gets extra points for explaining alchemy in a way that actually makes sense – as the search for perfection and immortality, rather than just to turn things into gold. Cushman makes you feel both the circumstances and mindset of early Elizabethan England, without turning it into a history lesson or losing any vitality.

As an added bonus, I got to see Cushman speak at Powell’s, where she shared some of her research process and passed around her Newbery medal.

Source: my library
The Death-Defying Pepper Roux The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

While there are some marvelous and hilarious things going on in this story, the episodic plot-line never quite gelled for me. Pepper was meant to die by his fourteenth birthday, but feels guilty (yet relieved) by having cheated death as he goes on a series of adventures, taking on different identities and righting various wrongs. The language is fantastic, the characters colorful, and the action a little madcap, but something always kept me at a distance.

The only other McCaughrean I’ve read is her Printz-winning The White Darkness, where I would describe my enjoyment of it as an acquired taste. Like Sym, Pepper doesn’t see the world clearly, blinded by inexperience and the foolishness of the adults in his life. Neither one is completely a sympathetic character, yet you still want things to turn out well for them.

Source: my library

The Storm in the Barn The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

In my mind, I link this with Out of the Dust, although the only obvious connection is the Dust Bowl. They both, though, have a way of making the dust a key character in the story, and a way of giving the modern reader a hint of what it must have been like to live with the dust. The Storm in the Barn incorporates some fantasy elements, although you could make an argument that it was all in Jack’s dust-addled imagination. The graphic format works well here to give a sense of space and atmosphere, as well as the dust itself. Words are minimal with the loose but powerful images doing most of the work, and the conclusion is completely moving and satisfying.

Source: my library

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The Water Seeker The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt

It’s moving story, with themes about family, belonging, growing up, and learning to see past the surface of things, set during the 1830s and 40s. It pulls you in, makes you care for characters, doesn’t spare you any of the pain of loss or change, takes you across the country on the Oregon Trail, makes you feel fear and first love. It manages to feel gritty without much violence, and it makes history close and immediate.

But will any kids pick it up off the shelf? I know, I know – just because it won’t get checked out like crazy doesn’t mean there aren’t readers who want and need stories like this. But it’s one of those children’s books that you could imagine published for the adult market with a few small changes. On the other hand, it really is about the experience of being a child – of dealing with change and growing up. Definitely recommended.

Source: I picked up an ARC at PLA.

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One Crazy Summer One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Excellent books are the hardest to review – all you really want to do is shove them into people’s hands and make them read. Add on the fact that this book has already received plenty of glowing reviews, and it becomes hard to say anything articulate and fresh about it.

A piece of history under-represented in children’s fiction? Check. A whole slew of believable and interesting characters, including one fantastic narrator? Check. A story that manages to cover the microcosm and the macrocosm at the same time, complete with good pacing, humor, the responsibilities of being the oldest child, issues of race, the thrill of adventure, and poetry? Check, check, check.

Just go read it already. If this doesn’t get some kind of shiny sticker come awards season, I’ll be surprised.

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October 2021

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