The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

Information

Goodreads: The Pearl Thief
Series: Code Name Verity #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart is back at her grandfather’s estate for one last summer before it is sold. She expects to be busy doing nothing more than packing boxes, but ends up in the hospital the first day she arrives. She cannot remember what happened, but it seems like her injury might be linked to the employee missing from the estate. Everyone suspects the Travellers who have, for years, come to help on the estate and gone pearl fishing in the river, but Julia knows that the McEwens are innocent. Things start to look bad for Julia’s new friends, however, when a body is found in the river.

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Review

Having not yet read Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief was going to be, for me, a fun period mystery more than anything else. However, I have to admit that “fun” and “mystery” do not accurately describe the story I found. Though mysterious things are happening around Julie at her grandfather’s estate, her interests include flirting, driving, and wandering–not detecting. She simply stumbles across clues periodically until the mystery is cleared up by accident, with little intent on her part or, really, on anybody’s. In fact, no one even knows that there is a Pearl Thief, so the title is a bit misleading. In short, The Pearl Thief is a coming-of-age story whose primary interest comes from being set in Scotland and including much information on Scottish river pearls. It will appeal to fans of Code Name Verity or readers who like travel stories, but it will likely disappoint those looking for an actual mystery.

I really enjoy mysteries, so I have to admit that I find myself in the camp of those who will be disappointed by this story. From the summary, I got the idea that Julie would want to play detective as soon as she realized that an employee was missing off the estate, along some pearls. However, no one seems too concerned with the man’s disappearance–not his employers, not the police, and certainly not Julia. No one knows that he apparently absconded with some pearls, either. In fact, no one even remembers that the pearls existed! Julia does have vague memories of them, but brushes them aside. Readers will likely realize pretty quickly from all this what is happening (there must be a reason certain people did not see fit to report an employee as missing), but Julia does not–and she does not care, either.

Fifteen-year-old Julie is really just concerned with having a good time–and I don’t blame her. She has fun trying to flirt with an older man, and she spends her days traipsing about the countryside and trying to woo Ellen, a standoffish Traveller. The Travellers are some of the more interesting characters, considered as a group. Elizabeth Wein depicts just some of the suspicion and abuse they face from society because of their iterant lifestyle–even though it is clear that they contribute a lot to the local economy and should be valued members of the community. An author’s note at the end gives more information about and context for the Travellers, including their current situation.

Scotland, its culture, and its history end up being the true stars of this book, being drawn more vividly than even the characters. Julia is sort of a standard teen who enjoys having a good time. Ewen McEwen is almost nonexistent, despite his prominence in the official summary. Ellen McEwen is more provocative, but does not end up having enough of a personality to be truly intriguing. But real love for Scotland and its heritage leaps off every page, and readers will enjoy immensely the opportunity to learn about the moors, river pearls, and, yes, the Travellers. Make no mistake; Scotland is the protagonist here, not Julia.

The Pearl Thief taught me a lot about Scotland, and I loved learning more about Scottish river pearls, since I had not known they existed. However, the official summary mislead me into thinking the book would be a mystery, when it is really a coming-of-age story. I still enjoyed the book, but I think I would have enjoyed it more, had I not been expecting something entirely different.

3 Stars

So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow

So Many Beginnings

Information

Goodreads: So Many Beginnings
Series: None (but part of the Remixed Classics line)
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

It’s 1863 and the American Civil War is at its midpoint as four sisters and their mother work to make a life for themselves in the Freedmen’s Colony at Roanoke Island. There’s Meg, a teacher who longs to be a mother. Jo, a young woman with a way with words. Beth, a talented seamstress. And Amy, an aspiring dancer. Life is not easy, but the girls support each other through it all.

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Review

So Many Beginnings is a fascinating retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in that it takes inspiration from Alcott’s work, but chooses to tell a story all its own. While the basic idea is the same–four sisters are coming of age during the Civil War–almost everything else has changed. Readers cannot expect to see similar incidents in the book, even of something as vague as a failed picnic or a party gone awry, nor can they expect the romances to follow the same patterns. This is a wholly new tale with wholly new characters. It is one, however, that seems almost more concerned with getting history right than it seems concerned with telling a story.

Like many works of historical fiction published today, So Many Beginnings is eager to teach its readers about the proper way to view the past. In so doing, it sometimes feels anachronistic. The characters cannot be presented as actual people from the 1860s because readers might mistakenly think that their views, which are now considered outdated or even offensive, are something they should agree with. So the book is full of characters musing about how to interpret certain moments in history or even brief mentions of things like “therapy” for soldiers–even though PTSD was not recognized or treated in quite the same way as it is now–because educating impressionable readers is the focus of the book.

Many readers will likely enjoy the informative aspects of the book. The Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island is not necessarily a part of history taught in schools, so Morrow takes care to bring it to the forefront. The characters have many conversations about what is happening, how they see the Union as failing them, and how they wish well-meaning white folks would actually listen to them–the people living there–and give them agency. Jo also begins a newsletter about the colony, with excerpts periodically provided in the book. Readers may just be inspired by all the information to keep on researching this overlooked part of history.

The characters, however, seem to fall a bit by the wayside during the story. And, in a seeming effort to make the book happier, Morrow removes much of the conflict that makes the original characters come alive. Here, Jo does not feel sorrow at potentially losing Meg to a suitor, but whole-heartedly supports her in getting married. Jo does not even feel much annoyance at Amy (Amethyst), who is made more winning and less insufferable. Beth (Bethlehem), as in apparently every retelling of Little Women, does not die and actually has more confidence and vision for a future life than any of the other characters. The picture is of a loving, supportive family who almost never disagree or have any problems. Any slight disturbances they feel are quickly forgiven and forgotten. It makes the family seem ideal, yes, but what is Jo without a temper and without the fear of losing her sisters? What is Amy without her pride and desire for wealth? Conflict and flaws are what makes a story interesting.

Even the writing style proves a bit disappointing. The sentences often seem stilted. Unusual word orders occur frequenly, making it necessary to reread parts to gain understanding. And Jo, who is supposed to be a magician with words, talks in an overly elaborate and formal way that seems more awkward than anything else.

I had been looking forward to this retelling for months, but I have to admit that I found the reading experience a bit lackluster. I enjoyed learning more about history, but did not find the story itself engaging, and had trouble deciphering some of the prose. It is worth checking out for readers who enjoy historical fiction and who want to learn more about the Freedmen’s Colony at Roanoke Island. But a nonfiction book would likely work just as well, with the benefit that readers will not be expecting more than a factual account.

3 Stars

Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Bright Ruined Things
Series: None
Source: Goodreads Giveaway
Publication Date: October 26, 2021

Official Summary

Forbidden magic, a family secret, and a night to reveal it all…

The only life Mae has ever known is on the island, living on the charity of the wealthy Prosper family who control the magic on the island and the spirits who inhabit it. Mae longs for magic of her own and to have a place among the Prosper family, where her best friend, Coco, will see her as an equal, and her crush, Miles, will finally see her. Now that she’s eighteen, Mae knows her time with the Prospers may soon come to an end.

But tonight is First Night, when the Prospers and their high-society friends return to the island to celebrate the night Lord Prosper first harnessed the island’s magic and started producing aether – a magical fuel source that has revolutionized the world. With everyone returning to the island, Mae finally has the chance to go after what she’s always wanted.

When the spirits start inexplicably dying, Mae starts to realize that things aren’t what they seem. And Ivo, the reclusive, mysterious heir to the Prosper magic, may hold all the answers – including a secret about Mae’s past that she doesn’t remember. As Mae and her friends begin to unravel the mysteries of the island, and the Prospers’ magic, Mae starts to question the truth of what her world was built on.

In this YA fantasy, Samantha Cohoe wonderfully mixes magic and an atmospheric setting into a fantastically immersive world, with characters you won’t be able to forget.

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Samantha Cohoe’s latest novel takes readers to a magical island, where the Prosper family has subdued the spirits and used their power to produce a fuel source that has granted them unimaginable wealth and influence. Mae, the orphan daughter of a loyal servant, longs to be taught magic, and to find a place within the family she has learned to love and envy from afar. As First Night approaches, however, the night when the Prospers flaunt their riches to the world through an extravagant party, Mae begins to question the facts her life has been based on. The Prospers, it turns out, have secrets–and some of them could be deadly. This imaginative, high-stakes thriller takes inspiration from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest to present a historical fantasy that feels wholly and wonderfully original.

Although marketed as a sort of Tempest retelling set in the 1920s, Bright Ruined Things is more properly conceived of as a mystery/thriller book, in the vein of Karen McManus’s The Cousins. Connections to The Tempest are scarce, aside from the presence of magicians on an island full of spirits. And the world of the 1920s is one largely left to the readers’ imaginations, aside from the depiction of a Gatsby-esque party. The island, after all, is largely cut off from the rest of society, so readers, like Mae, never really get to immerse themselves in the culture. Readers wanting a straightforward Shakespeare retelling will likely be disappointed. But those desiring a high-stakes plot full of Shakespearean double-crossing and intrigue, all set against the backdrop of a glitzy party, will be delighted.

The plot is truly the highlight of the book, along with the deft characterization. Readers may think they know where Bright Ruined Things is taking them, but Cohoe throws in enough red herrings and plot twists to keep her audience second guessing themselves. Watching the lies of the Prosper family finally unspool gives one that satisfying feeling that only a well-written mystery can give.

Aiding the plot are the characters, none of whom seem to be telling all they know, and all of them desperate to gain something for themselves, even at the expense of others. Mae, the protagonist, somewhat complicates things. She exists not quite in the world of the Prospers, but not quite in the world of the servants. This makes her perfectly positioned to realize that the perfect facade of the Prosper world has begun to crack. However, though others may find her mousy, Mae is not without her own secret longings. Rejecting everything she thought she knew in order to uncover the truth will cost Mae, as well–and it is a price she is not sure she wants to pay. Mae not be an entirely likable character, but she is a complex one–and it is her flaws and layers, along with everyone else’s, that makes the book so entertaining to read.

Bright Ruined Things is an engrossing mystery about the lies people will tell and the lives they will ruin in order to climb to the top. Fans of Karen M. McManus and Maureen Johnson will enjoy this new page-turner from Samantha Cohoe.

4 stars

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

Information

Goodreads: Etiquette and Espionage
Series: Finishing School #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2013

Official Summary

It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners–and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage–in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.

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Review

I have fond memories of constantly seeing Etiquette and Espionage and the other Finishing School books in the library around the time they came out (2013, for this one), always intending to check them out and read them because the Gail Carriger seemed so popular. . .and never actually doing it. So it is with great interest that, eight years later, I have finally read this book — and realized it’s nothing like I expected it to be. I was expecting something like Kathleen Baldwin’s A School for Unusual Girls, since both novels have the premise that a boarding school for girls is covertly an institution that trains them in espionage, but the similarities basically end there. While Baldwin’s series is immersive, serious, and romantic, Carriger’s is a steampunk tongue-in-cheek take that skews a bit younger.

I have to write as a disclaimer that Carriger and I don’t seem to share the same sense of of humor. While she’s obviously making little winking jokes throughout the entire book that I’m clearly supposed to find amusing, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I also wasn’t expecting the characters in a book about a finishing school (which DOES train its students for polite society, in addition to the darker arts) to talk as they’re Bertie Wooster, straight out of a Wodehouse novel, particularly because I believe the time period is a bit earlier than the Jeeves novels. I’m sure some readers will be tickled by the whole aesthetic, but it wasn’t really what I was expecting and I just didn’t find it that funny.

That aside, the book is fun. I really liked that protagonist Sophronia is 14, and she acts like it — a good reminder that YA was more like this eight years ago, focused on characters younger than 18 who acted more like teens than like grown adults. Sophoronia is silly, rebellious, friendly, and skilled all at once, and though I think I’d share her older sisters’ opinion that she’s a bit annoying if I met her in real life, she’s entertaining to read about, and I do have to admire her heart.

I’m still not 100% sure what the finishing school is for. Whose “side” are they on? What do they do? Are they good? Evil? It seems weird to me this isn’t fully covered in book 1 because I don’t want to have to read the rest of the series to find out. I guess readers are just supposed to expect the story as it is, but I was worried the whole time that, in seeking to do something right, Sophronia might actually be causing harm. And maybe she did, but I still don’t know at the end of the book!

Etiquette and Espionage isn’t my favorite book ever, but I think it’s just a matter of my personal taste. If someone likes this sense of humor, or if someone is looking for a lower YA book, this could be a great choice.

Briana
4 stars

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed

The Black Kids

Information

Goodreads: The Black Kids
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

This coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots. Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year. Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.

As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?

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Review

The Black Kids is a beautifully written novel that explores one girl’s coming of age in a time of turmoil. Ashley Bennett is a senior in high school enjoying many of the perks that come with wealth, while largely ignoring the problems of the outside world. After the death of Rodney King, however, the kids at school, as well as some of Ashley’s family members, begin speaking up about the injustices they see happening around them. Ashley would not mind continuing living in blissful ignorance, but it becomes increasingly difficult as people she knows are swept up into the protests and the riots. The Black Kids is a sensitive and an empathetic look at finding and claiming one’s identity in an increasingly uncertain world.

The Black Kids brings a fresh perspective to YA literature as it draws attention to issues of the present by focusing on events in the past. Set in the 1990s, the book is technically historical fiction, but, sadly, it feels like a story that could have just as easily been set in 2021. With one simple narrative choice, Christina Hammonds Reed makes a powerful statement about American society, encouraging readers to reflect on what exactly has changed–and what has not.

This thought-provoking start proves just one savvy choice among many as the book progresses. In Ashley, Reed gives readers a compelling protagonist who initially seems privileged due to her wealth, her school, her neighborhood, and her friends. Ashley herself sees no need to think too far beyond the fun she’s planning to have in her senior year of high school, and readers soon learn that she is the type of girl who does not mind trespassing in someone else’s pool or even stealing someone else’s boyfriend if it means she will have a good time. However, though Ashley could easily have been written as a disagreeable protagonist, she mostly feels realistic and she manages to capture readers’ empathy despite her poor choices. In some way, this may be because Ashley can work as a stand-in for readers: initially blissfully ignorant, not too concerned with current events, assuming the problems around her are someone else’s–but ultimately realizing injustice affects her, too. In other words, Ashley is not necessarily a bad person, but she is someone who could be more thoughtful–just like so many of us.

Ashley’s character is incredibly rich, giving the story a wonderful depth and nuance as she tries to navigate her identity even as the people and the events around her threaten to change her understanding of it. She begins as content to hang out with the rich white girls in her school, but ends up realizing that she is also connected in important ways to other people: her sister, a college dropout trying to change the world; her uncle and her cousin, still trying to save and live off a vacuum repair business in an age when repairs are obsolete; the cute boy at school, who needs a scholarship. Initially, Ashley does not really relate to people who are always getting upset about current events or who aren’t as wealthy as she is. She ends by understanding that her identity can be so much bigger than she realized, and that she’s part of a larger community.

The Black Kids would be a standout novel just from the rich story and characterization, but Reed also gives readers a genuinely amazing reading experience through her evocative prose. The narration has a sort of artsy feeling to it, but not the kind that can confuse readers or make them feel like they don’t understand what is happening. Rather, the narration reflects a bit of Ashley’s thought processes, as she seeks to make sense of the world around her, and its relation to her past, as well as her present and her future.

The Black Kids is a beautifully written novel with a powerful story focused on friendship, family, and identity, along with a vibrant protagonist. It is a standout novel, and one certain to stay with its readers.

5 stars

5 Young Adult Regency Books to Read If You Like Netflix’s Bridgerton

Regency YA Books to Read after Bridgerton

Clearly part of the appeal of Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton, based on the novels by Julia Quinn, is that it is a romance– that is, the show is based on adult romance novels, so things get steamy. YA books aren’t romance novels, but if you want books that have that Regency era feel (and perhaps a more PG or PG-13 romance), check out our recommendations below.


Duels and Deception

Duels and Deception by Cindy Anstey

Like Anstey’s debut Love, Lies and SpiesDuels and Deception is a light-hearted Regency romance that will keep you vastly amused if you like spirited girls and swoon-worthy guys in historical fiction.  The novel is, in some senses, ridiculous.  The dialogue seems a bit overdone with the author’s attempts to make it period, and the action is certainly on the absurd end (kidnappings and conspiracies and scandals, oh my!).  To top it off, the whole plot is incredibly predictable.  And yet…it’s just so.much.fun.

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A School for Unusual Girls

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin

When Miss Georgianna Fitzwilliam’s parents become frustrated with her out-of-control science experiments and unladylike behavior, they send her to England’s most notorious reformatory school. None of them know that Stranje House is more than a school for Regency England’s rich and powerful young ladies. It’s a front for an organization that trains girls of unusual talents to serve their country as scientists, diplomats, and spies, and Georgianna is about to become entangled in some dangerous plots.  A School for Unusual Girls is a wonderfully imagined story of romance and adventure the will appear to fans historical fiction with strong female leads.

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I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend

I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Cora Harrison

I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend is precisely the type of book one would probably expect it to be from the title, a light and fun YA read about a young girl who dabbles in intrigue and romance because she’s Jane Austen’s best friend (and Jane Austen even as a teenagers has a sharp wit and keen eyes).  The book is just the thing for someone looking for some delightfully fluffy entertainment, with spunky female protagonists and some eighteenth century heartthrobs.

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Keeping the Castle by Patrick Kindl

Seventeen-year-old Althea’s ancestor built his dream home, a castle, on the cliffs of Yorkshire.  Weather and a poor foundation, however, have wreaked havoc upon the building and penniless Althea and her mother can do little to save it.  Their one hope lies in Althea’s making a good marriage, but few suitable men live in the area—until the arrival of Lord Boring and his party.  Althea accordingly sets her mind to win Lord Boring’s heart (and his wealth), but his friend Mr. Fredericks has an awful habit of ruining all her plans.

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Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix

Lady Truthful must disguise herself as a man in order to go on an adventure to locate her missing emerald. Nix combines Regency romance with magic in this imaginative tale.

You can also read my discussion post on what I liked about Bridgerton even more than the romance!

Briana

Harbor for the Nightingale by Kathleen Baldwin

Harbor for the Nightingale Stranje House series

Information

Goodreads: Harbor for the Nightingale
Series: Stranje House #4
Source: Purchased
Published: September 20, 2019

Official Summary

Maya brings the mystery of India with her…

With her friends’ lives in deadly peril, Miss Maya Barrington, one of Miss Stranje’s unusual girls, must serve as a double agent. To do so, she gains entry into Napoleon’s duplicitous game on the arm of the enigmatic Lord Kinsworth. She can read almost everyone; not so with this young rascal. Quick with a jest and armed with lethal charm, Kinsworth remains just beyond her reach. Can she trust him?

With Britain’s future at risk and those she loves in deadly peril, Maya questions everything she thought she understood about life, love, and loyalty.

Fans of genre-blending, romance, and action will love this speculative history Regency-era novel filled with spunky heroines, handsome young lords, and dastardly villains–fourth in the Stranje House series. Don’t miss the first three books: A School for Unusual Girls, Exile for Dreamersand Refuge for Masterminds.

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Review

This is a tough book for me to review because, although I’ve been championing the Stranje House series since A School for Unusual Girls was released in 2015, I didn’t connect with Harbor for the Nightingale as much as I did with the first three books.  I enjoyed seeing more of Maya (and Sera, as her best friend at the school), and the book does feature more escapades and plotting against Napoleon, as well as well as a new romance.  However, things felt a bit rushed to me, and the romance was flatter than I have come to expect from Baldwin.

Part of my difficult might be that Maya’s talents seem so abstract.  I thought I would struggle in book two with Tess’s talent for prophetic dreams, but Baldwin made them seem real.  Maya’s primary talent is changing the cadence and tone of her voice to influence people, and her second is hearing the “music” of other people and the world.  Baldwin clarifies in an ending author’s note that Maya’s voice modulation is based on a real art, and that part does work for me.  Her ability to constantly hear “music” from everyone and everything around her was more difficult for me, for two reasons.  First, this imbued the book.  Literally everything was described as sound and notes and instruments, and it seemed a bit overdone to me.  Second, I think it was used as shorthand for the romance, which made that relationship more compelling.

In Harbor for the Nightingale, the love interest is someone new to readers, though there are indications that he and Maya have been in proximity and working/singing together for a bit.  However, Maya’s knowing him is different from readers knowing him, so the relationship feels as it comes a bit out of nowhere.  Furthermore, a lot of is based on Maya’s sense of his inner music and her sense that there’s something mysterious or charming about it or something that matches her own music.  This, I admit, means very little to me.  Saying you like someone because of his inner violincello is just not quite the way to help people/readers understand your romantic chemistry.  So while the love interest seems like a genuinely nice guy, Harbor for the Nightingale definitely has the least swoonworthy romance in the series, in my opinion.

I did, however, enjoy seeing Maya’s relationships with the other characters, including the other girls (especially Sera, who is quiet and therefore a bit of a mystery as a character) and with her father.  I think the book really shines here, as well as with getting readers into Maya’s mind in general.

There’s also a tightly focused plot, which I think is useful at this point in the series.  Stopping Napoleon has always been the goal, but that can be so broad.  In Harbor for a Nightingale, we get a clear sense of what Maya is going to do to help that happen.

I still love the Stranje House series, and I am certainly going to be reading the next installment (focused on Sera).  There just seems to be a bit of a fourth book slump here. 

*Also it’s worth noting that this book, unlike the previous three, was published by an indie press rather than Tor Teen, so the pricing is a bit different if you’re looking to purchase it, and it might not be as readily available in some libraries (although mine recently did get the ebook). 

Briana
3 Stars

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

The Fountains of Silence

Information

Goodreads: The Fountains of Silence
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

It’s 1957 in Madrid. The war is over, but not everyone is safe in Francisco Franco’s Spain. Nineteen-year-old Daniel Matheson is visiting from Texas, hoping to take photos that will win him a prestigious contest and convince his father to send him to journalism school. As the son of a wealthy oil man, he cannot begin to understand the life of Ana, the pretty girl who works in his hotel, and who has captured his heart. Ana is the daughter of Republicans, both killed during the war. Now, she lives in silence, hoping that the secrets she carries will not hurt her, too. Can love really transcend all? Or will the shadow of Franco’s rule dash both Daniel and Ana’s dreams to pieces?

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The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys is a book that loves to take its time. Sepetys has clearly done much research, and she just as clearly wants to share that research. The result is that sometimes the desire to impress readers with the atmosphere of 1950s Spain overshadows the actual plot of the book. Miniature lectures about the politics, history, economics, and culture of Spain threaten to disengage readers from the story as fiction veers into nonfiction. Readers enthusiastic about learning as much as possible about Spain under Franco’s dictatorship will love this book. Readers wanting a fast-paced YA novel set in Spain may be disappointed.

Ultimately, it is impossible to separate Sepetys’s plot from the history of Spain since the plot itself seems to have been created as a sort of call to awareness and activism as Sepetys sheds light on a tragic policy enacted under Franco’s rule. Sepetys notes that the repercussions of this history continue to play out today. She does not hide her desire for readers, especially young readers, to do the research themselves and to learn more about what is happening. In this way, her book reads as less than a story than as perhaps a lesson.

Miniature lessons are scattered throughout the book. Primary source quotes begin chapters, giving readers a sense of the political climate under Franco’s rule, and the varied thoughts on U.S. involvement in Spain. This is fine. However, lectures on Spanish history are frequently interjected into the tale, as if the characters regularly reflect on politics and economics as they go about daily tasks. This is hard to believe. Also annoying are the moments when characters spout historical facts so readers can learn about things like the history and tradition of bullfighting. This detracts from the story’s realism at times.

If readers can get past this, however, the story is ultimately rewarding. It does progress more slowly than many a YA novel, perhaps because Sepetys is considered a crossover author with adult readers. But the romance is sweet and readers will find themselves hoping that Daniel and Ana can find happiness, despite all the odds stacked against them.

It took me awhile to fall into the story, partially because I was repeatedly yanked from it by the historical fun facts inserted into the narrative. I prefer historical fiction to describe the past a little more naturally. Eventually, however, I did end up liking the book. I was only disappointed by its too-coincidental ending.

3 Stars

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Downstairs Girl
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 2019

Summary

When seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan is summarily dismissed from her job, she finds herself sinking in society. Once she dreamed she could have a career. Now she is a servant. But, secretly, she is also the advice columnist Miss Sweetie, using her pen to advance social justice. Can Jo really make a difference? Or will 1890s Atlanta discover they have unwittingly been following the advice of a Chinese American girl?

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The Downstairs Girl is a gripping story focused on the little-acknowledged experiences of Chinese Americans during the nineteenth century. Set in 1890s Atlanta, it follows seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan as she struggles to find her identity in a society suspicious of difference, but on the brink of social change. But even as women begin to clamor for increased autonomy–and for the vote–Jo begins to realize that, sometimes, “women’s rights” means “white women’s rights.” And she will need to forge her own path for her voice to be heard.

Jo’s voice makes the story come alive as she combines astute social and political observations with a hint of sass. She is a confident, independent spirit who knows how to play the game to make her way through life–but she also resents it. Her story is one of attempting to find balance, advocating for change, but without outrunning her fellow advocates or losing the precarious standing in society she has. Over the course of the story, she will have to decide whether there will ever be a time when she is willing to risk it all for something she believes is right.

Stacey Lee expertly narrates her story through Jo, balancing the interior lives of her characters with just enough drama to give the plot moving apace. The only aspect of the work I feel ambivalent about is the ending, which I believe is meant to be empowering. (Potential spoilers) But I could not help but wonder if it was realistic. Throughout the story, Jo tries to be careful, tries to blend in. By the end, she has flouted nearly ever social convention she can. And I could not help but wonder if the ending should not have been more bittersweet than victorious.

Overall, however, The Downstairs Girl is an engaging read about a part of history that schools tend not to cover. It an interpretation of how it might have been to grow up as a Chinese American girl in the 1890s. And, in the process, it makes a fascinating part of history come alive.

4 stars

Vango: A Prince without a Kingdom by Timothée de Fombelle

Information

Goodreads: Vango: A Prince without a Kingdom
Series: Vango #2
Source: Library
Published: 2011 (trans. 2015)

SummarY

Vango is on the run.  From arms dealers.  From Russian operatives.  From the French police.  And he still does not know why.  But as he begins to discover more of his past, leading him from Europe to the skyscrapers of New York, he realizes that one day, he may have to stop–even if it costs him everyone he loves.  Trans. by Sarah Ardizzone.

Star Divider

Review

Vango: A Prince without a Kingdom is an exuberant mixture of every adventure trope a reader could possibly want, heavily flavored with every key historical moment a reader could think of.  The result could border on the ludicrous, for those who do not delight in such absurdities.  Readers who have a sense of fun, however, and who do not take their genre fiction too seriously, will love going with Vango on another wild adventure.

Vango is still on the run, being chased alternately by the French police and unknown Russian agents, but now also by an arms dealer who wants him dead.  Poor Vango has no idea why all this is happening, though, of course, Italian pirates and Joseph Stalin seem to be involved.  However, things start to get interesting when Vango stops running and his adventure novel turns into a crime/spy novel as he attempts to find the men who killed his parents and help an old friend prevent WWII.  Readers, of course, realize that preventing WWII is futile.  But it’s difficult not to hope Vango will succeed anyway.

I am not sure characterization is the strong suit of the novel.  Vango himself remains pretty mysterious, while his lover Edith and his friend the Cat remain aloof.  They become interesting not so much because readers know them and thus sympathize them, but because their lives are so interesting.  Edith, after all, is a Scottish heiress with a penchant for speeding cars and flying planes.  The Cat is a lonely girl who runs the rooftops of Paris.  And Vango?  Well, Vango, of course is a train-running, roof-climbing, zeppelin-boarding enigma who can speak several languages and defy death at every turn.  Maybe readers don’t need to know him personally to find his story fascinating.

Describing the book and its myriad tropes, as well as its insistence on squeezing in every possible historical reference (Nazis!  The Hindenberg!  Stalin!) does admittedly make it seem a little much. But it was precisely this overload of tropes and references that made me love it.  The book just wants to take readers on an adventure.  And it does that splendidly.

4 stars