Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalo

Stalking Jack the Ripper

Information

Goodreads: Stalking Jack the Ripper
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper #1
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Official Summary

Groomed to be the perfect highborn Victorian young lady, Audrey Rose Wadsworth has a decidedly different plan for herself.  After the loss of her beloved mother, she is determined to understand the nature of death and its workings.  Trading in her embroidery needle for an autopsy scalpel, Audrey secretly apprentices in forensics.  She soon gets drawn into the investigation of serial killer Jack the Ripper, but to her horror, the search for clues bringers her far closer to her sheltered world than she ever thought possible.

Review

Stalking Jack the Ripper takes readers to Victorian England, where protagonist Audrey Rose is learning forensics and flaunting all societal standards.  While the premise of the novel is a unique one, and Maniscalco has put clear effort into creating a world where people dabble with dark deeds and death to write a YA novel that stands out from the crowd, I ultimately thought the plot lagged.

Maniscalco takes an unsolved mystery and puts her own spin on it, but I found the solution to the mystery too obvious to guess too early in the novel, which was disappointing.  There are a limited number of characters in the book to begin with, and both the jacket summary and the snippet on the back of the hardcover give even more painfully broad hints.  Once you note this and account for some popular mystery tropes, it’s not difficult to tie everything together.  I would have liked a more surprising outcome, or at least more of a puzzle.  I also didn’t believe the Jack the Ripper character had particularly believable motivations or actions in many circumstances.

Beyond the mystery, the novel focuses on the life and personal development of protagonist Audrey Rose.  The book jacket calls her a “remarkably modern Victorian girl,” and that’s apt, so modern it’s nearly grating and definitely anachronistic.  I understand a lot of readers like anachronism; they want YA historical fiction heroines who break from the mold and do things they would not have actually been able to do in the time period.  However, Maniscalco simply takes things too far.  Audrey Rose does not only do remarkably modern things; she won’t stop explicitly stating how progressive she is!  The book is speckled with multiple direct remarks about how men cannot control her, how she refuses to dress properly, how she wants women to have rights, how she has her own mind, how women are the same as men, ad nauseum.  She has some decent points, but she won’t stop proclaiming them.  She can’t even put on makeup without thinking,

“I dreamed of a day when girls could wear lace and makeup—or no makeup at all and don burlap sacks if they desired—to their chosen profession without it being deemed inappropriate” (25).

Or attend an afternoon tea without assuming all the other girls must be like her and want to talk about exciting, manly, scientific things:

“As the afternoon wore on, I watched them, noting the role they were all playing.  I doubted any of them truly cared about what they were saying and felt immensely sorry for them.  Their minds were crying out to be set free, but they refused to unbind them” (149).

Indeed, she is disappointed to learn they might actually be interested in the silly conversations they are having…yet remarks multiple times that of course she is allowed to be interested in both fashion and science!  To think they are mutually exclusive would be absurd!

Basically, I tired of Audrey Rose early on, and none of the other characters saved the novel for me.  I have seen other readers swooning over the love interest, but to me the romance was too quick and forced; I didn’t feel any real spark or chemistry.  Audrey Rose and Thomas seem primarily to have their love of examining cadavers in common, and the fact that Thomas never bats at eye at all the supposedly scandalous things Audrey Rose does.  Indeed, I would have liked to see someone be scandalized because Audrey Rose seems to be all talk on this front; she continuously points out how she’s breaking social conventions and destroying her reputation, but hardly anyone seems to notice or care.  That makes it less believable and makes her seem less brave.

I almost DNFed this but carried on simply because I felt I could get through the book quickly, which ended up being true.  My standard for books I want to DNF is two stars, so that’s what this is getting.  Again, the concept is unique, and I think it could have been really great for a dark YA historical fiction, but never in the novel really worked for me.

Briana

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker

nat-turnerINFORMATION

Goodreads: Nat Turner
Series:  None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2006

SUMMARY

Baker combines his wordless graphic novel with excerpts from Nat Turner’s confessions to telll story of the 1831 slave uprising in Southampton County, Virginia.

Review

Kyle Baker sheds light on an overlooked portion of American history, the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nate Turner, which resulted in the deaths of dozens as a group of slaves and free Black individuals went from plantation to plantation killing the white inhabitants.  Turner’s legacy has been controversial, with some viewing him as a hero and others condemning his violent methods.  His impact, however, was immediate, as his actions caused swift revenge upon the black community but also inspired Black Americans, who admired his spirit of resistance.  Baker’s graphic novel captures the intensity and the mystery of this somewhat forgotten historical figure.

Baker’s contribution to the novel is wordless, suggesting that the violence experienced by slaves in America  is, in fact, beyond words.  The beatings, the separations, the fear must all be experienced visually, and it almost feels sometimes as if you the viewer must be complicit, as you stand by in deafening silence, watching brutality occur.  Baker pairs the images with excerpts from Turner’s confessions.  The stark account of his past and the uprising contrasts sharply with the panels, again suggesting that some things really cannot be spoken of.

Nat Turner is a powerful book, one that will likely make readers feel uncomfortable as they confront the violence of slavery.  Baker provides some end content  that reinforces the story, including an image of the crowded conditions in slave ships, further reading, and discussion questions for classes.  The material reminds readers that this is all very real, something they must engage with.

4 starsKrysta 64

Maud by Melanie J. Fishbane

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Maud
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: April 2017

SUMMARY

Fourteen-year-old Lucy Maud Montgomery dreams of attending college and becoming a writer, but her grandfather does not believe in higher education for women.  Worse, when she finally goes out west to be with her father again, her new stepmother treats her as nothing more than a nanny.  Will Maud ever find a way to follow her dreams?  Or will she grow old feeling that her world has grown increasingly smaller?

Review

Fans of Anne of Green Gables, rejoice!  If you have ever wished to find a similar book and have already read and reread all of L. M. Montgomery’s other titles, this might just be the book for you.  Based on Montgomery’s journals and letters, Maud recounts the author’s teen years on P.E.I. and in Prince Albert.  Maud is a little bit of Anne and little bit of Emily, combining a love for life and beauty with a desire to overcome the odds.  But Maud is, most importantly, ultimately herself–and you are sure to fall in love.

The early parts of the book most resemble Montgomery’s novels, which can make it feel at times like the author and the reader are playing a game of “spot the allusion” together.  Perhaps this is understandable, however.  Montgomery’s stories sprang from her own life and her own feelings of loneliness, frustration, and despair–as well as the moments of deep joy– certainly made their way into her heroines’ journeys.   Maud’s tale is, however, a little darker than those of her young female protagonists, and readers will find themselves sympathizing with her as her world shrinks and her hopes diminish.  Knowing how history turns out does not make the journey less moving.

The pacing of the story does feel a little uneven, with Maud’s years in P.E.I. and her blossoming romance with a certain handsome someone cut abruptly short at the end of Book One.  Book Two, which chronicles Maud’s years with her stepmother and her father in Prince Albert, takes up the bulk of the story.  This is where much of the drama is, as Maud tries to hone her writing skills even as her stepmother tries to keep her from school so she can play nanny to her stepmother’s children.  However, Book One offers many delightful friendships, quiet and reflective moments, and cherished time spent on the Island.  Fishbane could have made Books One and Two roughly equal in size to keep the narrative pacing consistent.

Overall, however, Maud is a charming tale of a young woman growing up, discovering herself, and chasing her dreams.  Fans of Montgomery’s works will love it, but, with its compelling protagonist and sweet romances, fans of YA will find much to enjoy in it, as well.

4 stars

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Wolf HollowInformation

Goodreads: Wolf Hollow
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 3, 2016

Official Summary

Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl’s resilience, strength, and compassion help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.

Review

Wolf Hollow brings readers to rural western Pennsylvania, where World War II is hovering ominously in the background but has mostly passed young protagonist Annabelle by.  Rather, her biggest issue is the new girl at school, Betty, who seems determined to make her life miserable.

The setting of Wolf Hollow is definitely one of its strong points. I found it fascinating to read about a place that, technically, is the middle of the 1940s, but because of it’s rural location often looks like something out of an L.M. Montgomery novel (late 1800s/early 1900s).  While the characters have electricity and other conveniences we would recognize today, the children still attend school in a one-room schoolhouse and seem primarily invested in playing and helping out on the family farm.  I also was intrigued by how the ongoing war seemed both present and absent in the novel, something Annabelle is aware of but isn’t directly affected by.

The characters are interesting and sharply drawn.  I felt like most of them are round, and most are willing to change their habits or opinions when new information presented itself; they have recognizable characteristics, but they never get into a rut.  Protagonist Annabelle is spunky and brave, even when she is sure she is not, and her friendship with Toby is one of the highlights of the novel.  Her family, schoolmates, and neighbors, all come equally to life, however.

I have seen numerous comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird, and while I agree the themes of othering and judgement are similar, this is a hard sell for me because To Kill a Mockingbird just seems like a better book. It’s well-written, in prose and structure, and it treats its themes with an amazing blend of empathy, complexity, and subtlety.  Wolf Hollow has solid prose, so no complaints there, but the treatment of tough, complicated themes simply isn’t on the same level.  The narration often states things explicitly in the sense of “People don’t trust citizens of German heritage because the US is at war with Germany,” but without any real delving into the issue.  In fact, I think this book in large part about bullying more than it is about some of the more political themes it alludes to, ones relating to the current World War II and ones related to the aftermath of World War I.  Those things are there, but the narrative is so very much on the new girl at school being a jerk and a bully to everyone around her, with or without motivation.

Other readers have commented on how dark the book is, and I grant that (even as I’m arguing that it seems to skirt some of the darkest issues).  I disagree, however, with assertions that this necessarily means the book is not appropriate for children or is somehow not “really” a middle grade book.  It is, indeed, different from much of the middle grade on the market–but I think that’s a feature, not a flaw.  Readers don’t want books to seem factory produced, to feel that there’s only one aesthetic for a middle grade book.  Certainly, if you’re considering giving this book to a child, take into account their individual ability to read about dark topics and depressing events.  Not all the loose ends tie up nice and rosy here.  But I think this is very much a middle grade book that will find middle school age readers.

4 stars Briana

Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard

Lucky Strikes Louis BayardInformation

Goodreads: Lucky Strikes
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: July 5, 2016

Official Summary

Set in Depression-era Virginia, this is the story of orphaned Amelia and her struggle to keep her siblings together.

With her mama recently dead and her pa sight unseen since birth, fourteen-year-old Amelia is suddenly in charge of her younger brother and sister, and of the family gas station. Harley Blevins, local king and emperor of Standard Oil, is in hot pursuit to clinch his fuel monopoly. To keep him at bay and her family out of foster care, Melia must come up with a father, and fast. And so when a hobo rolls out of a passing truck, Melia grabs opportunity by its beard. Can she hold off the hounds till she comes of age?

Review

When I first saw Lucky Strikes at the library, I assumed it was a middle grade book incorrectly shelved as YA, based simply on the cover art. I love illustrated covers, but this particular aesthetic is common among middle grades books like The Mysterious Benedict Society or The Book Scavenger. Additionally, the plot summary–girl needs to find a way to save family business–reminded me of middle grade books like Natalie Lloyd’s The Key to Extraordinary.  On the other hand, the title is a cigarette reference, and the book does touch on things like smoking, cursing, drinking, and a little bit of sex.  For those looking for an age level, I’d say Lucky Strikes works as a “lower young adult” or “upper middle grade,” but I am neither a teenager nor a middle schooler, and I enjoyed it simply as a good story about small town Virginia, a determined girl, and a quest to save a family.

Lucky Strikes gripped me from the start with Amelia’s spunky voice and strong spirit. I’m not always a fan of “voice” in novels (sacrilege, I know) because it can come across as forced and over-the-top. However, I completely bought that Amelia is from a small town/rural area in Virginia during the Depression era. She has just the right amount of regional dialect, plus she’s just funny and all-around entertaining to read about.  Even when things are bleak–the novel does start with her mother’s death–she keeps things together and can find humor in situations that warrant it.

Amelia’s family is also a pleasure to read about.  The sibling dynamics are relatable and realistic.  Even though Amelia is doing her best to keep the family business going and her siblings from being sent to foster homes, she is not always the unquestioned heroine. She’s a teen (and human), so sometimes she’s wrong, and she’s an older sister, so sometimes she’s self-righteous and bossy.  But the family works it out.

The one thing I didn’t really like was the sudden structure change near the end of the book. I don’t mind books with interesting structures, but it feels wrong to me when something totally new happens when the story is almost over; I prefer consistency in structure, and I think Bayard could have worked out another way to get all the information across that he wanted to.  There are also some rather wild plot events near the end of the story, which puts a little dent in some of the realism of the book, but it’s all very exciting and dramatic, so I’m willing to accept them for the entertainment value. And I suppose all of it technically could happen.

Lucky Strikes was a lucky find for me. I haven’t seen this book mentioned anywhere in the book blogosphere or online at all, but it was a fun, moving, and engaging read. I hope I find more gems like this at my library this year.

*Side Note: We’ve had some discussions about religion in YA with some of our readers.  Lucky Strikes does have a dash of religion, which I thought was cool. The protagonists are agnostic, and proudly so. (The original book title was apparently The Gas Station Pagans, which is the nickname the family gets from some townspeople for not being religious and attending church.) However, the book does acknowledge that many people in this small Southern town are very religious, and that their religion is very meaningful to them. I thought it was a nice touch of realism, even if it’s only mentioned in passing.

4 stars Briana

The Freemason’s Daughter by Shelley Sackier (ARC Review)

The Freemason's DaughterInformation

Goodreads: The Freemason’s Daughter
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Publication Date: April 11, 2017

Summary

Jenna MacDuff and her family have always been willing to die for their king—the exiled James Stuart whom they hope one day to put back on the English throne. Yet Jenna never imagined she would need to make the sacrifice of leaving her home in Scotland. When Jenna’s clan goes undercover in England to build a garrison on the Duke of Keswick’s estate, she is shocked to discover her family’s treason goes beyond sending money to fund James’s ascension claims. Suddenly she finds herself torn between supporting her clan’s role in the Jacobian rebellion and protecting her unexpected new friends, including the Duke’s charming son, Lord Pembroke.

Review

Minor Spoilers.

The Freemason’s Daughter has an excellent premise: early eighteenth century Scottish political intrigue.  Count me in for all kinds of adventure and romance, headed by a spunky fiery-haired protagonist!  Unfortunately, I felt the book’s execution was overall simply okay, and if I had to pick one word to describe the novel, it would be “light.”

I know some things, but not a lot of things, about this period in British history, and I didn’t feel that the book really clued me in.  Sackier fills in the basic outline of the situation for readers.  There’s a king on the throne who isn’t really English and doesn’t even speak English, and some people want to get rid of him and put James Stuart on the throne instead, despite the fact he’s Catholic.  Jenna’s family is involved in this underground rebellion.  That’s…basically it.  I didn’t get a strong feel of the political situation or even the setting.  This could have been taking in some generic pseudo-medieval fantasy land for all I knew (despite the fact the 1770s are not even medieval).   I do appreciate historical fiction authors who avoid history info dumps, but The Freemason’s Daughter might actually have benefited from one.

The characterization is similarly lackluster.  Jenna’s spirited and determined and smart.  She is not a “typical” female of her time. She’s pretty modern in terms of education and opinions, which I understand many readers demand in order to “relate” to historical fiction.  However, she often felt like a template than a character to me.  Her romance with Lord Pembroke is unconvincing and needs more page time.  Lord Pembroke himself is nice, but he seems to shine mostly by comparison. A lot of the nobles in this novel are spoiled jerks, so being just generally civil puts any other character a step ahead.

Plot-wise, I was interested but often confused. Part of this is because readers follow Jenna’s point of view, and often Jenna herself has no idea what’s happening.  Furthermore, the pacing is decent until the end, where everything is rushed and several things not tied up.  I liked the concept of the novel, but so often I just wanted more.  I was hoping I could recommend this to a lot of friends whom I thought love it based on the summary, but now I’m really on the fence.

3 stars Briana

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

the-inquisitors-taleInformation

Goodreads: The Inquisitor’s Tale
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 27, 2016

Official Summary

1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Review

As some of you who follow the blog know, I study medieval literature, so I really, really wanted to like The Inquisitor’s Tale.  The world simply needed a middle grade novel inspired by Saint Guinefort (a greyhound who really did acquire his own cult during the Middle Ages).  Touches of Joan of Arc and other historical figures make this book right up my alley. So I’m sad to say I was bored through most of the book, and I really don’t think I would have enjoyed it if I’d read it as a child.

Most of my pleasure in the book came from playing “spot the medieval reference.” And medieval references are something Gidwitz is great at.  The book draws on a lot of medieval tales but mostly uses them as inspiration, rather  than using them in their entirety. So Jeanne has elements of Joan of Arc, but she isn’t Joan. She has visions, for instance, but she is not called to lead France through a war.  Jacob isn’t any historical figure in particular, but represents the Jews who lived in France in the Middle Ages.

And Gidwitz portrays the attitudes of the Middle Ages pretty faithfully.  Though there are violent parts of the book, one could argue that the darkest parts of the story are the various prejudices the children protagonists encounter: against Jews, Muslims, women, peasants, etc. Gidwitz explores these issues thoughtfully, while asking some tough questions like “How can someone say they hate Jews while befriending a Jewish boy?” Gidwitz shows the nuances in medieval thought, which is great, since the Middle Ages often get dismissed as a boring period of complete ignorance in pop culture.

The format of the book is also clever, if you’re into Chaucer.  Gidwitz alludes to The Canterbury Tales by having different characters tell each chapter and titling them such things as “The Jongleur’s Tale.”  There are also asides, as the storytellers interact with each other, in between telling their tales.  This structure, however, is also one of the sticking points for me.   It means that the protagonists’ story is told by a conglomeration of people who, for the post part, were not really in the story.  It creates some distance between the protagonists and the readers. It also means the story is constantly interrupted by the frame tale, which is something I just personally dislike in books.

The other reservation I have is about the plot and pacing. As I mentioned, I was simply bored thought a lot of the book. Stuff was constantly happening, but it took a while for it to all come together into any discernible overarching story.  I felt as if I were just watching characters run around inanely for half the book. The only reason I didn’t DNF is because, seriously, I’m really into the Middle Ages.

The Inquisitor’s Tale has really high ratings in general on Goodreads, and I can respect that since the book is clearly well-researched and rather creative.  However, this is one instance where I would love to get some children’s opinions on the book.  I do not think I would have liked or finished this novel if I had read it when I was in middle school. It’s slow and complex and altogether simply unusual for a children’s book. I didn’t relate to the characters or even understand for half the book what it was they were trying to accomplish.  I wonder if this will be a hit with adults more so than with the target audience.

3 stars Briana