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Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

Review: The Hired Girl

the hired girlSet anything with class distinctions and fancy households at the turn of the twentieth century and it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Downton Abbey. But that would be a huge disservice to The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, which has the requisite detail and decorum for a period piece, but also substance and heart.

Fourteen year old Joan’s narration begins when she pours her thoughts and feelings into the diary her teacher gifts her after her father forces her to drop out of school and earn her keep on the farm. A harsh and stingy man, he isolates Joan, treats her like a servant, and belittles her at every turn. When he tries to break Joan’s spirit after she stages a one-woman strike to gain a sliver of financial independence, she flees to the city with the meager emergency fund her dead mother left for her.

Through luck, naivete and a bit of deception, Joan lands a position as a serving girl with the Rosenbach’s, a wealthy German Jewish household. Out of kindness, the Rosenbachs hire her without references, with the stipulation that their very old, very picky Orthodox housekeeper has the final say over Joan’s employment. (more…)

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Review: The Scorpion Rules

scorpion rulesErin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules starts with a chilling premise: hundreds of years into the future, after humans nearly destroyed themselves fighting over dwindling resources, an artificial intelligence named Talis decided to take things into its own hands. (As Talis points out, the humans should’ve expected it: “I don’t know how it surprised people–I mean, if they’d been paying the slightest bit of attention they’d have known that AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?”)

Talis took control of the high-power weapons that could destroy entire cities. Then it tried to dissuade humans from launching small-scale wars by installing a hostage system: the president/king/queen/ruler of every country must give up their child. The kids are educated in schools called Preceptures, and released at age 18. But while they’re there, if a country declares war on another, the children of both rulers are killed. It’s proven quite effective at keeping wars to a minimum (“The world is at peace,” says the Utterances, a collection of Talis’ collected wisdom. “And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?”)

Bow starts the book long after Talis begins his rule. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy (part of modern-day Canada), is a seventh-generation hostage. She’s not far from her 18th birthday, but her nation is on the brink of war. Greta has accepted her likely death, and vows to meet it with dignity—until a new student, Elián, arrives at the Precepture. Elián’s grandmother leads an army that’s about to declare war on Greta’s country, and unlike the other students, Elián doesn’t accept the rules of the hostage system. His rebellion forces Greta to open her eyes and see things for what they really are.

Up until now, it sounds like a familiar YA dystopia. But Bow twists the tropes into something new, so it never feels like you’re reading a well-trod genre. It ties with Black Dove, White Raven as my favorite YA read of the year. Among the welcome surprises: (more…)

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western frontI used to be skeptical of authors commissioned to continue a beloved series. Surely, the new sequel couldn’t be as good as the original. Then I read Jacqueline Kelly’s Return to the Willows and was thoroughly charmed. So I had high hopes for Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front, and I’m pleased to say it exceeded all my expectations. Saunders’ reboot has all the humor and heart of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, but it goes deeper, and feels more grown-up while remaining quintessentially middle-grade. Bonus: it lacks the casual racism of Nesbit’s book.

As the title suggests, Western Front takes place during World War I. The Pemberton kids are all grown up now, with Cyril off to war, Anthea a volunteer nurse, Robert in college but expecting to join the army at any point, and Jane itching to become a doctor. Even the Lamb is 11, too old to spend much time with the Psammead when the sand fairy mysteriously returns. Luckily, Saunders has introduced Edith (Edie), a younger sibling not found in Nesbit’s books, and she soon becomes the Psammead’s best friend.

(more…)

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listen, slowlyTwelve-year-old Mai Le has no desire to hear why she must give up her summer vacation to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam. As far as she’s concerned, the “quack” detective her grandmother hired to find Mai’s grandfather, who was captured by the Viet Cong and disappeared during the Vietnam War, is leading them on a wild goose chase.

Neither is Mai interested in discovering her roots. A Laguna girl through and through, Mai knows she belongs on the beach with her gal pal, Montana, and the boy she’s secretly crushing on, not slumming it in the stifling heat of the remote village where her grandfather grew up, where she doesn’t speak the language and the notion of personal space and privacy is nonexistent.

So Mai makes it her personal mission to help her grandmother accept the truth. The sooner Ba finds closure, the sooner they can go home. This turns out to be easier said than done.

In Listen, Slowly, author Thanhha Lai takes a refreshing approach to the familiar story about a third culture kid experiencing her ancestral homeland for the first time. Happily, neither the plot nor Mai’s character arc hinge solely upon Cultural Identity and A Newfound Appreciation For One’s Heritage and Land of Origin.

Instead, Mai preoccupies herself with trying to escape her predicament. She also gets into scrapes, has teenage concerns, makes friends, meddles in the villagers’ daily routines (and love lives), and even does an impressive amount of sleuthing with the help of her new friends.

(more…)

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black dove white ravenWith Elizabeth Wein single-handedly dominating the YA category of gutsy female pilots in wartime, it’s tempting to compare her latest novel, Black Dove, White Raven, to its predecessors, Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity. Publishers Weekly remarked on the obvious: the main characters “share an avocation with those in her award-winning novels.” Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews praised Wein’s ability to “plait together the historical record, her passion for flying and ferociously vivid characters to create a heartbreaking adventure that grounds readers in the moment even as geopolitical complexity threatens to knock them off their feet.”

Nevertheless, I’d like to celebrate an equally important but overlooked Wein trademark: friendship. This may not seem like a big deal, but how often do you come across a YA book where the main relationships are between two close friends?

In Black Dove, White Raven, there are two such friendships. And one stolen plane.

The first friendship belongs to barnstorming, daredevil pilots Rhoda Menotti (aka the White Raven) and Delia Dupré (aka the Black Dove.) They learned to fly together, star in an aerial show together, and even raise their kids—Rhoda has a daughter, Emilia, and Delia, a son named Teodras—together.

In the decade after WWI, Delia, who is black, dreams of leaving behind racially segregated America so she and Rhoda, who is white, can raise their kids together under the wide, promising skies of Ethiopia. When tragedy strikes, however, it is up to Rhoda to make Delia’s dream come true.

Emilia and Teodras–Teo for short–are also a double act. At the age of five, their mothers buckled them into the middle cockpit of the family plane, shared with them a secret hand signal, and took them up into the sky for a spin. They have been “in the soup” together ever since.

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penderwicks in springJeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks in Spring is pretty much everything you could want in a quadrequal. (Okay, I know that’s not a real word, but let’s move along…)

Like all successful sequels of books with sequels, it:

1) retains the spirit (read: oodles of genuine Penderwick charm) of its predecessors,

2) is perfectly satisfying to read as a stand-alone,

3) yet builds upon the existing story/universe thus far by bringing something new

One such “something new” is Batty’s (now almost eleven!) love of music and budding passion for singing. And she, her musical mentors, and Birdsall by extension, have impeccable taste in music.

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” or the song when Batty first realizes she has real singing talent. Larghetto in the key of C. (more…)

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Review: The Port Chicago 50

PortChicago50While two titles do not qualify as a trend, I’d say Sheinkin has a knack for bringing under-the-radar stories from WWII to life and light. After his scientists-and-spies thriller depicting the race to build or steal the world’s first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin revisits the wartime Forties in The Port Chicago 50, about the Port Chicago explosion (also bomb-related!) and the remarkable fallout that forced the US Navy to confront the systemic racism within its ranks.

To tell the story from the perspectives of the Port Chicago 50, a group of black sailors who boycotted their unsafe and segregated work conditions, Sheinkin trawled through court documents and scores of interviews to stitch together this uniquely personal account.

“We had expectations to go to sea on a big Navy ship,” recalled Spencer Sikes, still a teenager when he enlisted. Instead, to keep the Navy segregated, black sailors ended up at Port Chicago in California, where the officers giving orders were white and the crews handling the bombs were black. Worse, the men were expected to load explosives onto Pacific-bound ships without any prior training; the officers made a game out of betting on which crews could load the fastest. The pressure was so bad, Sikes was convinced he’d perish on the pier and never see his mother again. (more…)

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