Eleanor, Alice, & the Roosevelt Ghosts by Dianne K. Salerni (ARC Review)

Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts

Information

Goodreads: Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts
Series: None
Source: ARC from Edelweiss
Published: September 1, 2020

Summary

There are three types of ghosts that can come back to haunt a house: Friendlies, Unawares, and Vengefuls. When a new ghost erupts in the home of Aunt Bye, the authorities designate it as Friendly. Cousins Alice and Eleanor Roosevelt, however, are not so sure. The ghost is acting strangely, manipulating the people in the household and growing ever more menacing. Can the cousins put aside their differences to uncover the history of the house and destroy the ghost for good?

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Review

Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts by Dianne K. Salerni is a chilling supernatural adventure set in an alternate history where spirits routinely haunt houses and no one bats an eye. Cousins Eleanor and Alice Roosevelt are very different–Eleanor is bookish and retiring, while Alice has a reputation for running wild. But, when ghosts start attacking their family, the two must work together to uncover the secrets of their family past and defeat the ghosts for good. This ghostly thriller will appeal both to readers who enjoy a deliciously creepy mystery, and to those who revel in imagining a different type of past.

I always enjoy a good alternative history, and I was immediately drawn to Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts because it focuses on a part of the past not many historical novels cover. Like any great alternate history, the book is based on real historical facts, but it takes those facts and adds an entertaining twist. In this case, the twist is basically Eleanor and Alice Roosevelt: Ghost Hunters. Talk about a fun time! It is a concept perfectly suited to current interest in the occult and ghost hunting shows, but also one that will attract readers who loved books such as Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. In short, it’s a concept that feels sure to succeed.

A book cannot succeed on premise alone, of course, but Salerni delivers a fast-paced and entertaining plotline along with compelling characters. Protagonists Eleanor and Alice are very different from each other. Eleanor is somewhat meek and unsure of herself, while Alice is outgoing but also looking for love and acceptance in her own way. Readers will likely relate to one or the other, but their real strength lies in the way they learn to appreciate each other’s qualities and work as a team. This is a duo I would love to see return in a sequel.

Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts is one of those rare middle grade books that feels almost magical. The premise, the plot line, and the characters all combine to create an engrossing story that is hard to put down. If you love supernatural mysteries, alternate history, or just a good ghost story, you will love Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts.

4 stars

Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Information

Goodreads: Queen of the Sea
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: June 2019

Summary

Queen Eleanor of Albion is banished to an island inhabited only by an order of nuns, and Margaret, the orphan girl who was mysteriously sent there long ago. Eleanor is cold and aloof, but Margaret still feels drawn to her. Soon, Margaret will have to decide if she is willing to risk everything to help advance Eleanor’s cause. An alternate history based loosely upon the life of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

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Review

Dylan Meconis’s Queen of the Sea is a stunning graphic novel, a testament to a love of history and a love of art. The story of Queen Elizabeth I’s imprisonment by her sister Mary is vividly reimagined in this alternate history and told through the eyes of a young orphan girl, Margaret, who lives an idyllic existence with an order of nuns on a remote island–until the day Eleanor arrives, with her haughty demeanor and her cruel guard. The story that results is gripping, certainly, but not because it is action-packed. Rather it is gripping because Margaret’s voice makes it come alive.

Margaret’s voice combines a childlike trust in the divine and enthusiasm for doing good along with an independent spirit. She provides a counterbalance to Eleanor, who is suspicious and cold, and equally independent. Ultimately, it is through Margaret’s eyes that readers begin to understand, and maybe, just maybe, feel for Eleanor. Because Margaret is uncorrupted and she still believes in the greater good, even when the greater good has an acerbic temper.

Margaret’s voice is also notable for setting the tone in which religion is presented in the novel. Mocking religion, and mocking religious views of the past, seems to come easily to many authors. And how easy it would be to make fun of Margaret for believing in miracles, how easy to make her look ridiculous and naive for believing in God! For wanting to become a nun! For believing in a saint whose life was saved by a bunch of fish! But people did (and do) believe in miracles, and did (and do) believe in the power of saints to help them.

Dylan Meconis’s work is true to that belief, depicting Margaret’s touching devotion to the divine, her desire to do good, her certainty that dedicating one’s life to God and to others is a noble calling. The nuns here are not caricatures. Religion is not a farce. The nuns are people, flawed but trying. And religion is shown to be something that can transform even the most ordinary of people. It feels like a true nod to the time of Elizabeth I (though admittedly without the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation).

The text combines flawlessly with the illustrations to create a sensitvely-drawn and eminently-memorable of one girl growing up, discovering her past, and forging her own identity moving forward. Queen of the Sea is undoubtedly one of the best graphic novels of 2019, and I can only hope there will be a sequel.

5 stars

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin

Information

Goodreads: A School for Unusual Girls
Series: Stanje House #1
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

After a chemistry experiment gone wrong sets her father’s stables afire, Georgiana Fitzwilliam is banished to Stranje House, a boarding school for girls that has a formidable reputation.  Those girls too odd to fit into society are rumored to endure torture in order to become marriageable misses.  But Stranje House is not what rumors say.  In reality, Emma Stranje is preparing her girls to serve as spies in the war against Napoleon.  But when Georgie loses her heart to the handsome Sebastian Wyatt, all of Miss Stranje’s plans may come unraveled.

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Review

A School for Unusual Girls is a fun Regency-inspired romance that never takes itself too seriously.  Although purportedly about a group of young women training to be spies in the Napoleonic Wars, the book really focuses on the chemistry between protagonist Georgiana Fitzwilliam and Lord Sebastian Wyatt.  Fans of Jane Austen and of period romance will likely enjoy this series.

Reading A School for Unusual Girls does admittedly take some suspension of disbelief.  Georgie is a chemistry genius who achieves her goals all too easily.  She is also, despite her scientific aptitude, a bit dense.  But the book is not really concerned with her supposed intellectual gifts, nor those of her schoolmates.  All this is merely background for the plot, which centers around the possibility of dashing young men falling in love with girls whom regular society has rejected. Steamy, right?

Kathleen Baldwin seems to have a thing for dark, brooding heroes, at least so far.  And, for some, the romance might be a little too passionate for YA, even though it never advances beyond heavy kissing.  The romance is, furthermore, a bit unbelievable, as Georgie and Sebastian are practically engaged within two weeks’ time.  The story mostly seems to hope that readers will be so carried away by the passionate love that they will ignore any timeline problems.  And, I imagine, most readers will be willing enough to play along.

The main criticism readers may find with this book is that George is a product of her time.  Most YA writers tend to write heroines who are extremely progressive, even modern in their outlooks.  But Georgie, a young woman who comes from a well-to-do family, a family that we know is far from kind–they left her in a school to be tortured on the rack, as far as they know–is not modern.  She finds her new Indian schoolmate Maya exotic and she describes Madame Cho as an “Oriental” woman who seems silent and sly.  This does indeed seem to be Georgie’s perspective because book two of the series, narrated by Tess, does not contain stereotypes to these extents.  Some readers may find Georgie historically accurate.  Others may be too disturbed to want to keep reading.

Personally, I did find Georgie’s views on others to be rather disturbing and I had to make an effort to read past them.  However, I would like to think that readers can use these perspectives as a starting point to discuss how we view and depict others.  It is a bold move to write a historical character who does not share contemporary values.  But the past was not squeaky clean and perhaps it is a disservice to readers to pretend that it was.  Maya and Madame Cho are clearly facing difficulties that the others, rejected by their families and by society as they are, are not.  Depicting this, rather than pretending that they are functioning in society exactly the same as the white students,  makes me respect them even more.  And it makes me hope that future books in the series will reveal more about their stories.

Overall, A School for Unusual Girls is an engrossing period romance with a dash of mystery and of adventure.  I would have loved to see more of the other girls and less of Lord Sebastian Wyatt, but future books will focus on different students as the protagonists.  Readers who like a passionate romance, however, will perhaps not mind Wyatt’s presence.

School for Unusual Girls

4 stars

 

 

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The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond (ARC Review)

The Only Thing to FearInformation

Goodreads: The Only Thing to Fear
Series: None
Source: Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
Publication Date: September 30, 2014

Official Summary

In a stunning reimagining of history, debut author Caroline Tung Richmond weaves an incredible story of secrets and honor in a world where Hitler won World War II.

It’s been nearly 80 years since the Allies lost WWII in a crushing defeat against Hitler’s genetically engineered super soldiers. America has been carved up by the victors, and 16-year-old Zara lives a life of oppression in the Eastern America Territories. Under the iron rule of the Nazis, the government strives to maintain a master race, controlling everything from jobs to genetics. Despite her mixed heritage and hopeless social standing, Zara dreams of the free America she’s only read about in banned books. A revolution is growing, and a rogue rebel group is plotting a deadly coup. Zara might hold the key to taking down the Führer for good, but it also might be the very thing that destroys her. Because what she has to offer the rebels is something she’s spent her entire life hiding, under threat of immediate execution by the Nazis.

In this action-packed, heart-stopping novel of a terrifying reality that could have been, Zara must decide just how far she’ll go for freedom.

Review

The Only Thing to Fear is an imaginative dystopian featuring two strong leads and a chilling setting.  Author Caroline Tung Richmond takes readers to a world where Hitler won WWII, and the Axis powers divided America.  Nothing of the old republic is left besides old memories.  Protagonist Zara, however, is determined to change that by joining the underground rebel group and helping plot the Fuhrer’s assassination.

The Only Thing to Fear is creative, and it has a lot of atmosphere, with Nazis patrolling the streets and swastikas decorating the towns.  It is not, however, as much of an actual alternate history as I had envisioned.  Richmond does follow a few threads of history into the future, imagining  a world where the Nazi still hunt down “undesirables” like the Jews and encourage good Aryans to have large families to perpetuate their lines.  German children attend military academies, and everyone else goes to work.  Despite all this, it becomes apparent early in the book that the plot and characters could have existed in any other dystopian world.  With the added science fiction element (some humans have developed superpowers from all the Nazis’ genetic tinkering), this book does not need Nazis at all.  They add a specific flavor to the dystopian world, but they are not necessary.

As for the characters, Zara is an excellent protagonist, one whose skills balance out her flaws.  She occasionally lapses into what are pet peeves for many YA readers—being overly dramatic over nothing and taking stupid risks in attempts to look brave—but these are decisions she makes, moments in her life; they are not her defining characteristics.  As a whole, Zara is brave, and determined, and beguilingly trusting in a world where she has no reason to trust.

Love interest Bastian is subtly swoony, the forbidden German romance in a handsome six foot package.  He also has a spectrum of character traits, strong enough to renounce his role in German society and tender enough to look after his mother in a hardened world.

The rebels could use a little more work, or at least a little more intelligence.  Several years ago, one of their members was captured and the plans of a vital mission were revealed during torture.  So one would expect them to stop revealing the full details of important plans to everyone who comes along, including new recruits whom they have no reason to trust.  This is perhaps a silly detail, but readers may have trouble believing in the validity of a rebel group that has no idea how to properly plan a mission.

While the setting and characters are generally strong, the themes of the novel disappoint.  Alternate history and dystopian are both genres that readily lend themselves to exploring important life questions—and The Only Thing to Fear misses its chance to do so.  Although the book is about a teenager who joins a plot to kill the Fuhrer, it does not really address the implications of what it means to kill someone.  And that is a mistake.  Zara is not a dystopian automaton who has been raised to kill, like the protagonists of Legend or Reboot.  She is a farmhand and a cleaning girl.  No matter how many executions she has witnessed, she is not a murderer.

There are also a few moments in the book where there are clear opportunities to segue into a discussion of how the rebels are different from the Nazis.  Both are killing people they do not like.  So are they different?  If so, why?  The book never tackles this question either, even when it seems a second away from raising it.

In the end, I really did enjoy The Only Thing to Fear.  The writing is strong and clear.  The characters are complex and well-developed.  And the setting is chill-inducing.  The book simply is not keen on philosophy or on discussing any of the themes it clearly brings up during the course of the action.  It is all about the show and the ride, and is not very concerned with what it all means, which is disappointing.