The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

Librarian of Auschwitz

Information

Goodreads: The Librarian of Auschwitz
TranslatorLilit Thwaites
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: October 10, 2017

Official Summary

Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.
Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.

Out of one of the darkest chapters of human history comes this extraordinary story of courage and hope.

Review

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a moving story following Dita, a Jewish teenager who was charged with the care and keeping of eight clandestine books in the secret school the prisoners established in the family “show camp” in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The novel, as clarified by the real-life Dita, is a fictionalization of real events, combining painstaking research with the author’s “rich imagination.” The result is a novel that is hard (it’s about Auschwitz, after all) but which also highlights the small beauties and acts of humanity that can flourish in even the most terrible of places.

The book weaves the stories of various other prisoners at Auschwitz into the narrative, ranging from Rudi Rosenberg, a camp registrar who eventually escaped and tried to warn the world of what the Germans were really doing in the concentration camps, to Fredy Hirsch, a youth sports leader who became in charge of the secret school in Block 31. The extra narratives make the book longer, and sometimes sadder since readers know from the beginning that Dita survives but may not be so sure about the other character—but the seeming tangents also help provide a more complete story what happened at Auschwitz.

The point-of-view is therefore sometimes odd, or it may be to readers used to the US young adult market, which is dominated by novels written in a first person limited perspective. The Librarian of Auschwitz is third person omniscient, switching not long among the points of view of various characters who may never interact with each other at all in the book but also to a narrative voice which occasionally interjects straight-up history lessons and commentary into the book.

At times, I found the story slow. I stopped reading it for a while then went to pick it back up, assuming I was at least halfway through; I was actually barely a quarter into the book. However, the story is one that should take time, drawing readers carefully through the various layers. Recommended for fans of historical fiction.

4 stars Briana

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Everless by Sara Holland

EverlessInformation

Goodreads: Everless
Series: Everless #1
Source: Library
Published: January 2, 2018

Official Summary

In the kingdom of Sempera, time is currency—extracted from blood, bound to iron, and consumed to add time to one’s own lifespan. The rich aristocracy, like the Gerlings, tax the poor to the hilt, extending their own lives by centuries.

No one resents the Gerlings more than Jules Ember. A decade ago, she and her father were servants at Everless, the Gerlings’ palatial estate, until a fateful accident forced them to flee in the dead of night. When Jules discovers that her father is dying, she knows that she must return to Everless to earn more time for him before she loses him forever.

But going back to Everless brings more danger—and temptation—than Jules could have ever imagined. Soon she’s caught in a tangle of violent secrets and finds her heart torn between two people she thought she’d never see again. Her decisions have the power to change her fate—and the fate of time itself.

Review

Everless has a fabulous premise, introducing readers to a world where time is used as currency, but everyone except the elite seem to be running out of it.  The story builds on this original premise by moving the story’s setting from Jules’s impoverished town to Everless itself–the sumptuous manner of the local ruling family.  Since I love unique fantasy and books that bring readers into the lush lives of the wealthy, I was on board with this from the start.

Granted, the point is that not everything is what it seems and that the glittering lives of the rich are built (pretty literally here) on the blood of the poor. Plus, our protagonist is a servant, so she’s not 100% living the high life herself.  However, I enjoyed the balance of seeing both dies of this world, the lower class and the upper class.  I’ve been reading a lot of books lately about servant girls who work in the kitchen and live in a dormitory of cots with other girls and want to be handmaiden to their mistresses, etc., so the world-building was not 100% as fresh as I’d like, but it still drew me in.

I was also a fan of Jules. Sure, she does the stereotypical thing of doing exactly what she was warned not to do if she at all valued her life, but she’s at least self-aware about it. She realizes it’s objectively stupid but decides she’s willing to take the risk to find out what she wants to know.  She’s not necessarily foolish; she just knows what she wants and is willing to take risks to get it, and I can get behind that.

However, I have two  main issues with the novel. First, the magic system is unclear to me and seems hand-wavy. We know that someone found a way to extract time from blood; how or why is not mentioned.  (Obviously, it’s clear why people would want to live longer and would therefore want to take time from other people, but it’s not immediately obvious to me how time came to act as currency.)  The ambiguity of the magic was not a deal breaker for me in this novel; however, because of the way the plot went, I believe the author will need to clarify this in book two, or it will become a problem.

Second, the romance is not convincing. I won’t go into details in order to avoid spoilers, but the gist is that I don’t think the protagonist actually knows that much about the love interest; she also barely interacts with him. This, too, is something that could be fixed in book two, but we’ll have to wait to see.

In spite of these flaws, the book is original and entertaining enough that I truly enjoyed reading it. It’s strong YA fantasy, and I look forward to reading the sequel, where I think our protagonist will really grow into her own and show her strength.

I’d give this book 3.5 stars, but we don’t generally give half stars on the blog, so I don’t have a graphic for that.

Briana

8 Fantasy Books Featuring Court Intrigue

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

In the underground city of Caverna, babies are born without the ability to show emotion and must be taught Faces to express themselves.  The richer you are, the more Faces you have.  But then Neverfell appears from the world above.  Her face, with its ability to show exactly what she is feeling, makes her a danger to a world carefully built on lies and intrigue.  Frances Hardinge imagines an extraordinary world full of magic and madness–a world so original that you will want to return for me.  Unfortunately, this one is a standalone.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Nineteen-year-old Kelsea Glynn is heir to the Tearling throne, but may not live to be crowned queen. As a baby, she was stolen away from the castle and raised in secret by servants. After the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, her regent uncle ruled as the puppet of the Red Queen, the cruel tyrant (and rumored witch) of neighboring Mortmesne–a nation that has subdued the surrounding realms and looks to solidify its control over the Tearling. Now of age to take her rightful place on the throne, Kelsea plans to restore the independence of the Tearling and to erase her family’s legacy of bad politics. But first she must not only survive the journey to the castle but also win the love and support of her people.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMater Bujold

As a soldier turned tutor, Cazaril is now responsible for instructing the sister of the man who will one day rule.  But he turned from politics long ago and he is not certain he wants to be involved with the intrigues of the court.

The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows

Ten years ago, Wilhemina Korte, princess of Aecor, watched her parents die at the hands of the Indigo Kingdom.  She and the other noble children were taken to the capital of their conquerors.  But they escaped and now they live as spies, determined to do whatever it takes to return home.  Even if they do, however, the wraith, a toxic mist born of magic, is slowly wiping entire lands off the map.  Wil wants to become queen.  But can she protect her people from the Indigo Kingdom and the wraith?

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Years ago a young man set out on a quest to save the land from darkness. He rose in power as the Lord Ruler, but his world became one of darkness and ash. Now the skaa work as slaves under the nobles, who alone possess the genes that can impart the magical skills of Allomancy. Kelsier, a skaa thief escaped from a life of labor, dares to challenge the might of the Lord Ruler. He, after all, as a result of his mixed heritage, possesses all the skills of a Mistborn. But, if his plan is to succeed, he will also need the help of an unlikely ally–a young street urchin who does not yet know the power she wields.

Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith

In fulfillment of a vow made to their father on his deathbed, Meliara and her brother Bran declare war against the monarch whose greed now threatens the prosperity of the kingdom.  Against the odds they struggle valiantly on, but find that peace can sometimes prove more dangerous than war.  Treachery lurks everywhere at court and Mel fears to place her trust in anyone.  Her reluctance to own to her mistakes and to take sides, however, may ultimately cost her her chance at happiness.  Contains Crown Duel and Court Duel.

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

As twenty-third in line to the throne, Freya never expected to be queen.  But when someone murders the king and a number of his successors, Freya suddenly finds herself fighting for her crown.  Unable to trust her own family, she will have to find a way to win the respect of the people and forge her own destiny.

The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have spent countless hours imagining stories in the room at the top of the stairs.  Now, however, Charlotte and Emily must go off to school–where their two older sisters died from fever.  But just as it seems separation is inevitable, they find themselves in a magical world where the Duke of Wellington still fights Bonaparte.  Even stranger, the world seems to be the one they themselves have created and it is populated with their toys.  At first they imagine they can stay there forever.  But when Branwell and Anne are kidnapped, the siblings realize that this world may be out of their control.

A Dash of Dragon by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartowski

Information

Goodreads: A Dash of Dragon
Series: Dash of Dragon #1
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Lailu is the youngest chef to graduate from the academy in three hundred years and she has a plan to revolutionize the way people think about food.  She is a mystical chef, one who hunts and serves beasts like kraken and dragons.  But her master has made a deal with a loan shark and if their restaurant does not succeed, they’ll both end up in servitude for life.  Does Lailu have what it takes to navigate the underworld, match wits with a series of spies, defeat a cooking rival, and still prepare the perfect meal?

Review

At times, A Dash of Dragon feels a little like a clunky and convoluted mess.  Lailu, a thirteen-year-old Mystical Chef (one who serves meals made of monsters), finds herself caught up in a world where a loan shark holds power over local businesses, the elf mafia terrorizes the city, the scientists may or may not be engaged in deadly schemes, and the king is…too young to be relevant as his city lives in terror?  None of this is bad.  It’s all very exciting.  It’s just confusing that Lailu is dragged into it by the opposing sides.  Who really hires a thirteen-year-old to spy on other people?  Especially when they are already doing a better job of spying themselves?

Also unclear are the motivations of Lailu’s rival, Greg.  He is roughly the same age and has opened his own restaurant, which Lailu perceives as competition–even though the average city can surely sustain two restaurants quite comfortably.  He obviously has a crush on her, but also appears to be a little mean.  Whether or not he is really mean or not is left unanswered–read the sequel if you want to figure out what this guy’s deal is.

Indeed, read the sequel if you want any of your questions answered, because this book is more concerned with drama than it is with giving anyone clear or logical motivations.  Lailu, for instance, regularly forgets about really important things just to make the plot convenient and just as regularly tends to be wrong about the characters of essentially everyone she knows–again to drive the plot.  By the end, she has done a score of ridiculous things, like protecting the identify of a group of murderer/kidnappers.  Why?  Probably so they can show up in the sequel.  There is no other explanation.

And yet.  The book is quite entertaining.  I loved Lailu’s spunk.  I was intrigued by the elf mafia.  I thought the premise of a group of chefs who hunt and cook monsters original and exciting.  In short, I enjoyed the book.  And I want to read the sequel.  Not because I want to figure anything out–I’ll be surprised if book two makes any more sense than book one–but because I love traveling through the magical world built in A Dash of Dragon.

3 Stars

Are Libraries Going Extinct?

To me, the question “Are libraries going extinct” is actually a very silly question.  All I have to do is walk into my public library and I can see that the computers are filled with students doing homework and adults searching for jobs.  Songs and laughter are coming from the story time room.  There is a line at the front desk and returned books are piling up on the counter, the workers being too busy at the moment to check them in.  Still, it’s worth looking at the numbers to settle this debate once and for all.

My local library publishes an annual report breaking down its sources of revenue, its expenses, its circulation numbers, and more.  I imagine that most, if not all, public libraries have such a report that they also make available to the public.  A quick glance at the 2016 report shows me that about 60% of my city’s residents actively hold a card (meaning they renewed it within the past year).  To me, that  number is not shabby, especially considering that some families only use one card for every member.  Over half the city has been to the library in the past  year!

Of course, my library might not be representative of the library usage of the U.S. as a whole.  But the Pew Research Center collects statistics on library usage and attitudes towards libraries every year.  In 2016, they found that 46% of adults had been to the library in the past year and that Millenials (53%) were more likely than any other generation to have been to the library.  Of those 16 and under, 48% had used the library or a bookmobile in the past year.  Though the numbers do not pass the halfway mark, they are hardly indicators that libraries are facing imminent closure.

Still, I won’t deny that I would like to see these numbers climb higher.  After all, libraries provide so much more than books these days and they are especially important in providing access to the Internet and other resources that many take for granted.  (In 2016, 35% of people with an income under $30,000 used the library computers or Internet–a resource many of us can’t imagine living without.)  In thinking about libraries, we have to remember that they are there to serve the community and promote equity.  If people are not using them, perhaps we have to find more effective ways of explaining and promoting the resources they provide.  I have met far too many children AND adults who come to the library believing that they have to pay to borrow materials or even possess a card to walk in the door!

Policy makers and those who control the tax dollars for libraries should also remember this:  Although only 46% of adults may have been to the library in 2016, a large number of library users are there because they cannot afford books, music, DVDs, Internet, or laptops on their own.  They are there because they cannot complete their schoolwork, apply to jobs, learn a language or a job-related skill, get their pay stubs, or connect through social media in any other way.  These people need the library, even if the policy makers don’t.  The Pew Research Center provides more pertinent data:

When using tech resources at the library, most people do research for school or work (61% of library tech users did in the previous 12 months), followed by checking email or sending texts (53%). A share also get health information (38%) and 26% have taken online classes or completed a certification.

Closing the library would put all these patrons at an even greater disadvantage. How would they earn good grades, apply to colleges, apply for health care, or get a job without the Internet?  The reality in today’s world is that they probably could not, at least not as easily or effectively.  And each struggle would make the next one harder.  Poor grades in high school from not being able to do research would mean fewer colleges to choose from.  No Internet to research colleges and financial aid would give someone even fewer opportunities.  Going to a college without the major one wants or to one not highly ranked in the person’s field would then potentially limit their job opportunities.  Ending library access would create a cycle from which it would be increasingly difficult to escape.  And yet some maintain that libraries are no longer needed.

I don’t think the numbers indicate that “no one” uses libraries anymore.  However, even if the numbers were lower, I would not advocate closing libraries but, rather, rethinking them and marketing them more effectively.  They are there to provide services to the community, to promote equity and access.  Their value is ultimately one that can’t be explained only in numbers.

The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross (with Spoilers!)

Information

Goodreads: The Queen’s Rising
Series: None
Source: Goodreads Giveaway ARC in exchange for an honest review
Published: Feb. 6, 2018

Summary

Brienna has grown up in Valenia, never knowing the name of her father, who hails from the neighboring land of Maevana.  Still, she always feels split.  But for now she has to focus on attempting to passion–proving that she has a talent for knowledge and being chosen by a patron.  However, when no patron chooses her, she chooses as her patron a lord who wishes to overthrow the king of Maevana.  She dreams of the day the rightful queen will rule over Maevana again, but, as she spins her webs of intrigue, she soon finds that she may have entangled herself too far.

Review

I have already provided a review of the ARC edition of The Queen’s Rising.  However, now it’s time to bring out all the spoilers and discuss in-depth all the feelings I had while reading this book.  Though I expected to love it based on the premise, I quickly found that the story is poorly paced, the romance uncomfortable, and the plot twists…not necessarily so twisty!

I can usually tell when a book is poorly constructed when I have trouble summarizing it.  In this case, I was already confused while reading the summary on the back cover, so I had some foreshadowing of what was to come.  On the one hand, this is a boarding school story about a girl who must find a way to master a passion (talent) for knowledge in three years instead of the usual seven.  And about the first third of the book focuses on her final week of classes as she tries to prepare to graduate and secure a patron.  Then, wham!  Suddenly, the book is not about Brienna’s passion at all! It’s now a court intrigue/rebellion book!

The patron she secures is not a passion, as is typical, but a man who wants to overthrow the ruler of the neighboring kingdom.  And he wants Brienna not because she’s a passion or has knowledge or really understands the lineages and history of Maevana, but because she is randomly getting memories about the hiding spot of a magical artefact.  Erm, why did we spend a third of the book wondering if Brienna has a real passion and if it needs to be inherent or if it can be gained through hard work…all for her to be chosen for patronage just because she got lucky and has memories triggered at odd moments?  Also, isn’t it grand that all the memories are super important and all related exactly to what she wants to know?

Of course, at this point I’m wondering why everyone in the country of Valenia cares so much about what happens in Maevana.  I’m pretty sure from watching the real world that the majority of people do not care what happens in other countries and are perfectly willing to overlook atrocities committed elsewhere.  Explaining that Valenia helped put the current awful king on the throne of Maevana does not convince me that so many ordinary citizens of Valenia would put themselves on the line to see a queen rule Maevana.  Nor am I convinced by Brienna’s constant musings about how she is “split in half” and that the Maevan blood calls to her or something.  She’s spent her entire life living in Valenia and knows only Valenia, but she’s suddenly super invested in Maevana and willing to die to put a queen on throne because her blood “wants to bow to a queen.”  Even if she does not know the queen.  Okay…

Yes, it is is convenient that everyone Brienna happens to meet secretly turns out to be Maevan, too! Wow, it’s almost like no one Valenian actually lives in Valenia!  Still, that does not explain the Dowager nor does it explain Merei.  (Actually, I would really like someone to explain to me how Merei knows archery when she’s spent seven years in a fancy girls’ school learning music.)  The book tries to shortcut all this, however, with some  highfalutin’ language and incredibly fast relationships.  It’s truly incredible to me that Brienna’s passion father kills to protect her one day after they’ve first met.  And truly incredible that Brienna now has a “real” family to love and die for after one day–I guess her grandfather doesn’t mean anything to her?

And how can we even begin to explain why her birth father decides to start a rebellion to put her on the throne the very first time he meets her?  Even though she’s working for his enemy?  Apparently he thinks saying, “Hey, betray your friends and join me, your true father who never cared about your existence before now” is a really convincing argument.  But I guess it works on Cartier, whose loyalty to his queen is so strong that he agrees to throw her to the wolves as soon as Brienna suggests she herself could be queen instead.  Morals? What are morals?  Cartier wouldn’t know.  Why exactly is it that we’re supposed to like and admire him, again?  Rebecca Ross seems to think it’s because offering to betray your country for your lover is super sexy, but I’m pretty sure the average woman would find a man of integrity far more attractive than Cartier.

What really bothers me, however, is the romance.  I am very uncomfortable with seeing a relationship between a teacher and a student.  Yes, it’s also weird that Brienna is 17 and Cartier is probably around 28 (assuming four years passed after he passioned and then he got a job at the school at the age of 21).  That’s a large age gap for young people.  Imagine someone out of college, nearing their thirties, dating…a high school junior.  Why?  They have nothing in common!  And the power imbalance  is a little creepy.  Cartier has much more knowledge, experience, and maturity–and could use that to manipulate a teen who is experiencing her first romance.  But, I digress.  We might, after all, hand wave this and say it’s a pseudo-medieval/Renaissance world and age gaps might not be weird in their society.  But I cannot stress enough how inappropriate it is for a teacher to fall in love with a student!

Yes, it’s true that Cartier wants until after Brienna passions (or graduates) to make any real moves, so they are no longer in a teacher-student relationship by the time most of the romance stuff starts.  We can’t argue that she might feel pressured to do…stuff…because of the power difference resulting from their professional positions.  However, Cartier’s preference for Brienna is marked enough during her time at school that another student notices it and complains.  He uses his romantic interest in her to favor her at times.  Even more uncomfortable is the fact that he sends her special adornment for her passioning and tells her how to style her hair, not because he’s her teacher and trying to help her make her best impression on future patrons, but because he gets pleasure out of seeing her dressed a certain way.  Here he is using his power as a teacher to make her present herself physically in a way that he wants.  That’s just icky.

And don’t get me started on his presumptuous choice for her passion cloak.  He chooses a constellation that does not mean anything for Brienna at the time of her graduation.  Instead, he chooses a constellation that completes his–a constellation that is about him and not about Brienna.  Because, remember, there have only been about two days of seeming flirtation between the two of them at the time that Cartier plans to present this cloak.  Was he going to use her graduation as the excuse to finally declare his love to his student?  Was he waiting years for this moment?  Now I’m uncomfortable again because it almost seems like he was waiting to pounce as soon as it was legal.  And when did his interest in her start?  When she first came to him at the age of 14 and he was 25?  Even if we hand wave the age gap, Brienna is still a child for, well, as long as Cartier knows her at school.

And then we get to the plot “twists.”  It is awkward to spend the majority of a book hiding Brienna’s parentage when it’s all revealed in a family tree before the story starts!  Also awkward are other possible reveals.  Luc=Luscas and Isolde=Yseult; their fake names are easily associated with the correct person on the family tree, for someone with a sharp eye.  I truly hope that the final version moves the family trees to the end of the book (I read an ARC).

The Queen’s Rising is an enjoyable read if you can overlook how the poor pacing and the other flaws.  I imagine most readers will since the book reflects closely what so many other YA fantasy books look like.  Still, I am very disappointed that the execution did not live up to the premise.

3 Stars

Lilacs and Other Stories by Kate Chopin

Information

Goodreads: Lilacs and Other Stories
Series: None
Source: Library Book Sale
Published: June 17, 2005

Official Summary

Before she wrote The Awakening — a powerful novel that has illuminated generations of readers with its strikingly honest and controversial themes of female sexuality and miscegenation–Kate Chopin penned many well-received short stories of Creole and Acadian life. Infused with “local color,” these tales are filled with fascinating characters, idiosyncratic customs, and sometimes shocking details.

Reflecting the influences of the French writers Guy de Maupassant and George Sand, “Lilacs” is a heartfelt and simple tale of love, life, and devotion. The compelling work is accompanied by 23 other distinctive tales of southern life, among them “A No-Account Creole” and “Love on the Bon-Dieu,” from Bayou Folk, and “A Matter of Prejudice,” “The Lilies,” and “Dead Men’s Shoes” from A Night in Acadie.

Review

Kate Chopin is best known for The Awakening (and possibly not much else), so stumbling across this collection of short stories she had published in various places during her lifetime as part of her efforts to make a living from writing, was interesting to me. The forward of my edition notes that the stories largely fall into the local-color movement of the 1890s, and Chopin probably drew on “the Creole society of her married life” as her inspiration. In short, the stories don’t really deliver the same aesthetic or worldview as The Awakening, which was somewhat a surprise to me and may be to other readers, as well.

First, when the forward mentions Chopin’s Creole society, what it seems to mean is that Chopin and her husband lived in New Orleans and were familiar with, but not part of, Creole society. The stories are what one would expect from local-color stories from the nineteenth century and, of course, do not reflect modern viewpoints on things like race, representation of dialect in writing, etc. I think Chopin generally has respect for her subjects and seems truly interested in representing the variety and nuances of their life experiences, but it was still the 1890s.

In terms of plot, the stories are just alright. Chopin occasionally goes for a small twist at the end, but none of the stories really took me by surprise. The selection in the book does at least vary in terms of whether the stories are sad, happy, maudlin, etc., which I appreciated. (Too many short story collections are put together by theme, which frequently results in the stories all sounding vaguely the same.) I don’t know, however, that I would go out of my way to recommend this book to others.

Mostly, however, I was interested in how different many of these stories seem from The Awakening. As a disclaimer, I don’t really like The Awakening and I don’t totally agree that abandoning your family is necessarily a great feminist message; however, I was struck by how differently some of these short stories tackle issues like marriage and gender relations. Some of them read as essentially the opposite of The Awakening, with women ultimately caving to the perseverance of men they have no interest in because…why not, I guess.

If you like Kate Chopin, these stories would be a good thing to look into. If you just want an interesting short story collection, you can probably find more entertaining things to read.

3 Stars Briana