Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden

Information

Goodreads: Crossing Ebenezer Creek
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 2017

Summary

When Gen. Sherman’s army marches past her plantation, Mariah and her brother Zeke join them for a chance of freedom.  But , to Mariah’s surprise, not all Union men are abolition men.  Even as she starts falling for Caleb and dreaming of a new life and an acre of land, Mariah will find that the protection the army offers is tenuous and a chance at freedom fleeting.

Star Divider

Review

Crossing Ebenezer Creek tells the story, often overlooked, of the black men, women, and children who followed Gen. Sherman’s March to the Sea for a chance at freedom.  In particular, it focuses on an incident at Ebenezer Creek that sheds light on just one of the many ways the Union army failed to protect the former slaves it liberated in an attempt to end the war.  While the explanations of army strategies and politics can sometimes feel simplistic, the book does achieve its goal of reminding readers that black individuals participated in the March, as well.

Crossing Ebenezer Creek balances its need to tell the horrors of slavery with a recognition that its younger audience may not need all the gruesome details.  Thurs, readers learn about the ways in which the men and women on Mariah’s plantation were degraded, injured, harassed, and even murdered, but the book still seems to be holding something back.  The full impact of this life is left to the imagination, lest it prove all too much for readers to process.  Younger readers may feel overwhelmed by what they read even so, but older readers who have been exposed to more detailed accounts will know that something is missing.

Ultimately, Crossing Ebenezer Creek works nicely as an introduction to readers who may not know a lot about Sherman’s March to Atlanta or who may still have only a simplistic understanding of the Civil War.  It reminds readers that things were complicated, that Lincoln liberated slaved in a region he had no control over, that free blacks lived a precarious existence, that not all Union sympathizers were abolitionists, and that even well-intentioned abolitionists still had to struggle against assumptions about black individuals or other prejudices.  None of this is new, but it might be to individuals who have only a superficial understanding of the war.

4 stars

Advertisements

The Player King by Avi

The Player KingInformation

Goodreads: The Player King
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: October 17, 2017

Official Summary

England, 1486. King Henry VII has recently snatched the English Crown and now sits on the throne, while young Prince Edward, who has a truer claim, has apparently disappeared. Meanwhile, a penniless kitchen boy named Lambert Simnel is slaving away at a tavern in Oxford—until a mysterious friar, Brother Simonds, buys Lambert from the tavern keeper and whisks him away in the dead of night. But this is nothing compared to the secret that the friar reveals: You, Lambert, are actually Prince Edward, the true King of England!

With the aid of the deceitful Earl of Lincoln, Brother Simonds sets out to teach the boy how to become the rightful English king. Lambert has everything to gain and nothing to lose, or so he thinks. Yet in this dangerous battle for the throne, Lambert is not prepared for what’s to come—or for what it really means to play at being a king.

Star Divider

Review

I tend not to read books by Avi for two reasons: 1) he’s written over 70 books, which (sorry) makes me somewhat skeptical about the quality and 2) he writes books that are chapter books/lower middle grade, which usually means there’s not a lot of plot or character development.  The Player King is no exception to the latter complaint.  The book is essentially the bare bones of the (true) story of how a young commoner was trained to pretend to be a long-lost prince and make a play for the English throne.  While I personally would have liked to see this story more fleshed out, the book probably works well enough for the age range of readers for which it was written.

Altogether, there are about 3-5 characters of any real significance in the book, but the small number does not mean their personalities are particularly well-developed.  Even the protagonist lacks apparent motivation for most of his actions, though the idea that he’s simply buffeted about by fate and people more powerful than he is certainly a theme of the book.  “Do as you’re told” is basically a catch-phrase of the story.  I think older readers will able to assume the motivations of most of the characters, but they’re certainly not well-explored.

As for the plot, things do happen quite suddenly (again, probably simply because this is a short chapter book and not really “meant” to be more developed).  However, I was disappointed by how quickly the protagonist changes his mind about certain decisions, how quickly he learns to act as a noble, how quickly the final, climatic battle is over (really, a matter of just a couple of pages).  This is the type of book that doesn’t fully impress me as an adult, but which I would probably have liked well enough as a child simply because I would have filled in any gaps in the action with my own imagination.

The Player King draws on some interesting source material, and I enjoyed the general idea of the story.  This will work well for young readers who like stories about kings and princes and times long ago.  It’s not necessarily the type of children’s book that is equally appealing to adults.

3 Stars Briana

The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr (ARC Review)

The Elephant ThiefInformation

Goodreads: The Elephant Thief
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Publication Date: March 27, 2018 (USA)

Summary

Danny has been making his living as a pickpocket on the streets, so when he catches the attention of the owner of the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, he knows it’s the chance of a lifetime. All Mr. Jameson wants him to do is to play the part of an Indian prince reunited with his pet elephant Maharaja—and ride that elephant across the country to Belle Vue in seven days. It’s a crazy publicity stunt, and a rival zookeeper seems determined to make them miss their deadline, but Danny’s connection with Maharaja will keep him going.

Review

Elephants are my favorite animal, so I was all about reading this historically based novel about an elephant that traveled across England. (Ok, so it’s about a boy who traveled across England with an elephant, but we all know who the real star is.)  In the end, I was slightly disappointed by the overly episodic nature of the way Kerr tells the story, but I did enjoy learning about this event from history that I’d never even heard of before.

However, although this elephant journey did occur, apparently it was not *really* that exciting (or, at the time, just seeing an elephant walk by was excitement enough for people, but that doesn’t make a great book these days).  Kerr thus livens up the historical source material by inventing a large number obstacles for Danny and his group to face. However, as mentioned above, this makes the narrative very episodic, and the narrative voice can’t help but keep interjecting how good times can’t last, something bad is bound to happen next, the characters knew their luck was too good to be true, etc.  The result is that it feels a bit as though Kerr decided to write individual scenes answering “What random bad thing can slow down the elephant race next?” and the conceit gets a bit old after awhile.

I did enjoy reading about the characters, however (though Maharaja really is not a character in his own right, which is also disappointing).  I think some modern readers will bristle at the artifice Mr. Jameson comes up with for publicity in the novel, having Danny pretend to be an Indian prince to play up the “exotic” factor of the whole affair and get people out to see the “prince” and his elephant.  However, again, this story is based in historical facts, so while this would be a totally bizarre thing to do today, it definitely seems like a stunt that would have worked in the time period, and many people in England were very curious about India.  Danny does reflect that it’s kind of ridiculous people believe he’s a prince in the first place.

That aside, the characters really are a good batch; Kerr plays up questions of family in addition to the elephant stunt, which highlights some of the characters’ softer sides. The main villain is somewhat flat, an “evil” rival who wants to close Mr. Jameson’s zoo and take the animals for himself, but the people who work with him are often more complex, something I like to see in the “bad guys.”

This isn’t my favorite middle novel, but it has an unusual premise, and it does raise some good questions about this period in history.

3 Stars Briana

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diana Magras

Information

Goodreads: The Mad Wolf’s Daughter
Series: None so far, but the text leaves room for a sequel
Source: Library
Published: March 2018

Summary

Drest’s father is the Mad Wolf of the North and she and her brothers form his war band.  But then her father and brothers are captured by a group of knights.  Drest sets out to reclaim them, intending to bargain for their lives with the life of a wounded knight. But the castle they are imprisoned in lies far away and Drest has many obstacles to overcome before reaching it.

Review

I saw glowing reviews for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter in Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, so I prepared myself for a wonderful story.  To  my surprise, I did not find the fast-paced, exciting tale with a strong protagonist I was lead to expect.  Instead, I found a plodding narrative full of random encounters and a protagonist whose main quality seems to be that she impresses reviewers because she is a girl who can wield a sword.  But this is 2018.  We have scores of fighting female characters.  Simply handing your female lead a weapon is not enough to impress me; I need a well-written story, as well.

Why so many reviewers have praised the pacing of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is truly confusing to me.  Throughout the story, my main emotion was boredom and I could not wait for Drest and Co. to hurry it up and arrive at their destination.  Unfortunately, they first have to journey through a series of random towns and have a series of disconnected adventures.  This is so Drest can do things like fight six boys (who have sticks and one spear among them) with a sword so that other people can cry out that “her legend awakes” or something.  Don’t ask me how getting into a street fight means that you’re now a legendary warrior.  We’re obviously just supposed to believe she’s legendary because the story told us so.

Other encounters have higher stakes.  Drest must fight adults or a mob or the law.  However, Drest tends to escape from these encounters with surprising ease.  Seriously, she rescues a woman from execution just by running up to the stage and running away.  That’s all it takes.  It makes you wonder why legends like Robin Hood or the Scarlet Pimpernel take so long about these thing–at least a chapter, if not the entire book– and then have to fight their way out or use a clever ruse to escape in disguise.  This girl, after all, can effect an escape from a crowd in a few sentences, and get herself and three other people away with zero trouble just by running really fast.  It’s amazing!  (Or, rather, it defies all belief and makes the story seem pointless and dull since there’s no suspense or danger.)

Other reviewers seem excited about the setting.  Medieval Scotland!  I admit the premise of the book excited me, too.  However, no historical characters or events appear in the book.  Drest and her family represent the presence of war bands at the time while the knights generically represent the concept of feudalism.  Other medievally things exist like swords, witch burnings, and oppressed women.  Basically, this book reads as generically medieval–I could get the same setting from a medieval-esque fantasy set in a pseudo-Europe.  I really want more historical flavor from my historical fiction.

Finally, there is Drest, our Strong Female Lead.  She’s not like the other girls.  She can wield a sword!  Other women–they are weak.  And probably shunned as witches and outcasts when they do not act properly weak.  But Drest?  She’s different!  And…that’s about all I have for you.  Other than her strange tendency to stage her thoughts as conversations between her brothers.  This is obviously supposed to help readers connect with these brothers.  After all, do we care that they are imprisoned when we have never met them?  No, we don’t.  So we have to “meet” them through Drest.  Some people seem to think this is clever.  I find it weird.

Our other main characters are just as boring as Drest.  There is her male sidekick whose name I forget.  He has a crow and says he is a witch.  He is really just in the story because authors seem to like having one female and one male lead.  Then there is the knight Drest is travelling with.  He’s basically Steve Trevor–faints, complains all the time, does nothing but get carried around by the other characters.  He is obviously the heir to the castle Drest is going to and I guess we are supposed to care that his uncle is obviously trying to kill him off so he can rule instead.  But…this knight fella is so annoying and helpless that it is hard to see why anyone would care if he was not ruling.  He does not seem like he would be particularly good at it.

In short, I see little to recommend The Mad Wolf’s Daughter.  It may have a girl protagonist who likes swords, but plenty of books these days contain fighting girls–and many of them also have well-paced plots and strong characterization.  I would prefer to read one of those.

2 star review

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

Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild

Information

Goodreads: Hild
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: November 12, 2013

Official Summary

‘Hild is born into a world in transition. In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, usually violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods’ priests are worrying. Edwin of Northumbria plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief.

Hild is the king’s youngest niece. She has the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world—of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing human nature and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her. She establishes herself as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—until she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, her family, her loved ones, and the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.

Hild is a young woman at the heart of the violence, subtlety, and mysticism of the early medieval age—all of it brilliantly and accurately evoked by Nicola Griffith’s luminous prose. Recalling such feats of historical fiction as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Sigrid Undset’s Kristin LavransdatterHild brings a beautiful, brutal world—and one of its most fascinating, pivotal figures, the girl who would become St. Hilda of Whitby—to vivid, absorbing life.

Review

I have had this book on my TBR list for a very long time. It’s about a fascinating historical figure, Hild of Whitby, and it’s about the Anglo-Saxon period, which I think is an under-featured era in British history in today’s fiction. (The only other book I’ve read that occurs generally in this time period is The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.)  It was with great disappointment, then, that I realized Hild may be one of the slowest books I have ever read.

Interestingly, the blurbs on the back cover disagree with me, and I seriously wonder how the publisher managed to solicit such blurbs because they are absolutely glowing.  I have never seen blurbs offer such high praise.  One goes so far as to suggest that Hild could have been the source material/inspiration for great works like Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings.  (Seriously, they suggest that the greatest poem of the Anglo-Saxon period could take lessons from this novel.)  Another blurber specifically praises the pacing of the novel, insisting it’s not slow at all.  I’m very confused.

The book, you see, is not action-packed at all.  It’s sort of about political intrigue and how Hild’s uncle King Edwin expands his kingdom and maintains his power, and how Hild’s family schemes and plots to stay in favor with him.  However, a lot of it is just Hild’s character development.  Historically, Hild was renowned for her wisdom, and powerful people sought her advice.  So Griffiths starts the book when Hild is a toddler and basically spends hundreds of pages showing Hild growing up, sitting around pondering birds and trees and people and barely speaking to anyone ever so she can hone her observation sills.  I have to say, this gets boring quickly.

I was not particularly impressed even when Hild finally start coming into her wisdom/prophetic powers.  Basically the whole thing is a sham.  Because Hild sits around observing people and being weird, she is apparently smarter than everyone around her, even when she’s ten years old.  Her “mystical advice” and “prophecies” for the king, then, are just statements she has made from logic.  (Ex. King So and So will attack us soon because I realized he hates us, and the weather will be good for moving armies in a couple weeks.)  She dresses it all up as magical omens from the gods to be taken more seriously, but she’s just lying. And since her uncle the king converts to Christianity later in the book, she just switches things around to claim she’s getting visions from the Christian God instead of Woden. I’d probably be okay with this if the book were just fiction and not historical fiction.  However, I found it weird that Griffith would take a historical figure who was a saint and a nun and write a version of her where Hild thinks religion is a joke but manipulates it for her own gain.  I’d have liked to see a version of St. Hilda who, you know, actually believed in God.

There are elements of the book that are sound.  The intrigue is occassionally interesting (though there are lots names to remember and alliances to follow), and the research seems sound enough (though sometimes I do thin Griffith inserts her own modern sensibilities about things).  If there book were about 200 pages shorter, I think I could recommend it.  As it is, it’s slow and tedious and frequently unconvincing with the characters.  I wanted to like, but I just can’t.

Briana

Odd and True by Cat Winters (ARC Review)

Odd and True by Cat Winters

Information

Goodreads: Odd and True
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: September 12, 2017

Official Summary

Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.

In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

Review

Odd and True is the electrifying yet heartwarming story of two sisters who team together to hunt monsters in early twentieth century America.  I’m always in favor of a good story about sisters, and Odd and True puts that relationship in the forefront, as the protagonists—Odette (Od) and Trudchen (Tru)—support each other even as they work through different opinions and try to come to terms with the fact that both of them have secrets.

Family in general is at the forefront of the story, as Od and Tru deal with their troubled past in different ways—partially because, as the older sibling, Od has totally different memories of their early childhood than Tru does.  The book switches between their points of view, with Tru narrating the present day action of their new quest to hunt down a devil they believe to be terrorizing the area around Philadelphia, while Od’s chapters focus on the past—her childhood and then a few teen years she spent away from true.  The result is a richly textured story that addresses love, loss, identity, and the definition of family itself.

The monster hunting aspect of the story is deliciously creepy yet not always the most compelling part of the story.  Winters plays coy, making readers wonder what exactly about monsters is real and how the story as a whole is going to play out.  It’s also worth noting that she keeps the story tight by featuring one primary monster the sisters go after.  This may be disappointed to readers who expected a little more gallivanting and epic showdowns, but I really liked it.  Some books in a similar vein cram in so many monsters that the fights seem episodic or even repetitive; Winters builds the excitement up around one main moment that’s really worth it.

I had never read a book by Cat Winters before Odd and True, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  If you read my reviews regularly, you probably know I have a tendency towards disgruntled mutterings about the sad state of prose in contemporary, particularly YA fiction (as much as I love YA).  Well, Winters’s prose is beautiful.  She drew me into the story with it from the opening pages, and the beauty never flagged. The chapters from Odette’s point of view have a particular tendency towards the magical and whimsical which really worked with Winters’s style.

I would be willing to read another novel by Winters just because of the writing in this one, but the story and character development are also remarkably well done.  It’s a great blend of magic, historical fiction, and real world issues.  Highly recommended.

4 stars Briana