The Silver Blonde by Elizabeth Ross

The Silver Blonde Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Silver Blonde
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Eighteen-year-old Clara Berg is a vault girl, running reels at Silver Pacific Studios in post-WWII Los Angeles. Then she finds a body in the vaults. It appears to Babe Bannon, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors. Clara finds herself drawn to the mystery, tracking down leads and trying to discover the culprit. But her investigation could jeopardize her life, as well.

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Review

The Silver Blonde is an atmospheric historical fiction, inspired by film noir. Fans of classic Hollywood will not only adore all the references to old film, but also immerse themselves in Clara’s world, from the details about film storage to the magic of movie making. A twisty mystery will keep readers turning pages, but it may just be the setting that captures their imaginations.

The story follows eighteen-year-old Clara Berg, an immigrant from Germany who is now a vault girl at Silver Pacific Studios in Los Angeles. Her dream is to become a film editor, though rising through the ranks is not easy for women. Then the discovery of a body threatens to upend her world. The victim appears to be Hollywood star Babe Bannon, killed by a personal enemy, but Clara’s investigations lead her to a deeper mystery that goes back to before WWII. What she uncovers could have repercussions that rock the entire studio. History intertwines with fiction to create a story that feels entirely different from everything else on the YA market.

The setting is truly the star of this book. Clara as a character is rather bland, as is her intended love interest. Even a hint of her struggles being accepted in a post-WWII America, or a glimpse at the sexism she experiences at work, do not give her character arc much trajectory. Clara is sort of a passionless stand-in for the reader, who gets to experience Hollywood through the eyes of the Everywoman, the person who works behind the scenes to make the stars look good. What Clara sees feels like magic.

Readers looking for a memorable historical fiction will delight in The Silver Blonde. The setting–after WWII rather during–is unique, and captures a fascinating time in American history, when the people were trying to move on from a shared trauma, but also finding that the past continued to haunt them. It is always a pleasure to find a YA that feels different from the rest–and The Silver Blonde certainly has its own alluring voice.

4 stars

My Fine Fellow by Jennieke Cohen (ARC Review)

My Fine Fellow Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: My Fine Fellow
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: January 11, 2022

Official Summary

It’s 1830s England, and Culinarians—doyens who consult with society’s elite to create gorgeous food and confections—are the crème de la crème of high society.

Helena Higgins, top of her class at the Royal Academy, has a sharp demeanor and an even sharper palate—and knows stardom awaits her if she can produce greatness in her final year.

Penelope Pickering is going to prove the value of non-European cuisine to all of England. Her contemporaries may scorn her Filipina heritage and her dishes, but with her flawless social graces and culinary talents, Penelope is set to prove them wrong.

Elijah Little has nothing to his name but a truly excellent instinct for flavors. London merchants won’t allow a Jewish boy to own a shop, so he hawks his pasties for a shilling a piece to passersby—but he knows with training he can break into the highest echelon of society.

When Penelope and Helena meet Elijah, a golden opportunity arises: to pull off a project never seen before, and turn Elijah from a street vendor to a gentleman chef.

But Elijah’s transformation will have a greater impact on this trio than they originally realize—and mayhem, unseemly faux pas, and a little romance will all be a part of the delicious recipe.

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Review

With some delightful twists on history and pages of delectable food descriptions, My Fine Fellow is an entertaining take on my My Fair Lady that will have readers’ stomachs grumbling and their hearts hoping for a happy ending for Elijah.

While the book does feel long at times with its extensive descriptions of food, cooking technique, history, and the characters’ pasts interrupting the action, many readers may enjoy these interludes as they can get some real tips for making delicious meals and pastries and learn more about how Jews were treated in England during the early 1800s. Even the main characters are not always free from prejudice on certain topics, adding realism to the book even as it provides those characters an opportunity to grow.

The best part, I believe, is the focus on cooking competitions. I love a good book about the culinary arts, and My Fine Fellow has enough to keep any reader satisfied on this point, with its featuring of a wide variety of foods and techniques and inspiration from various cultures. It will be hard to read this without getting hungry.

The characters are bit hit-or-miss for me. Helena is absolutely insufferable, and while I understand that’s the entire point of her characterization, it at times made reading this book an irritating experience rather than an entertaining one. She’s also snotty and stuffy, and I often wanted to laugh at her way of speaking, which is ironic considering her goal is to teach Elijah how to speak like her. Penelope and Elijah are a bit more well-rounded, and they also have bigger struggles to deal with than Helena does, which grounds them a bit.

My Fine Fellow stands out for its focus on food, and I think readers who enjoy YA historical fiction that provides real insight into history while also making creative alterations and not always taking itself series will like this one.

Briana
3 Stars

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

Information

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

Summary

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

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Review

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow

So Many Beginnings

Information

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

Summary

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

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Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel by Jennifer L. Holm & Savanna Ganucheau

Turtle in  Paradise Graphic Novel

Information

Goodreads: Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Life isn’t like the movies. But then again, 11-year-old Turtle is no Shirley Temple.

She’s smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending. After all, it’s 1935 and jobs and money and sometimes even dreams are scarce. So when Turtle’s mama gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn’t like kids, Turtle says goodbye without a tear and heads off to Key West, Florida, to live with relatives she’s never met. Florida’s like nothing Turtle’s ever seen before though. It’s hot and strange, full of ragtag boy cousins, family secrets, scams, and even buried pirate treasure! Before she knows what’s happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of the shell she’s spent her life building, and as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways. Filled with adventure, humor and heart, Turtle in Paradise is an instant classic both boys and girls will love.

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Review

I have not read the original novel on which this graphic novel is based, so I cannot compare the two or judge how well Turtle in Paradise succeeds as an adaptation. As a graphic novel for tweens, however, I expect it will succeed very well. The illustrations are colorful and appealing, while the unique historical setting will no doubt interest readers. I enjoyed Turtle in Paradise, and heartily wish there were a sequel!

Though I not read the original novel for this particular book, I have read a fair number of graphic novel adaptations and I can guess how this one might veer away from its source material. The chapters seem more like vignettes than like connected parts of a whole. And some of the darker matter–Turtle’s inability to stay with her dreamer mother, her mom’s estrangement from her own mother, an apparent lost love, the poverty of the inhabitants of Key West–are only hinted at, ever explored. I imagine that the original novel expands upon the ways in which Turtle’s mom fails to be a reliable parent due to her dreaminess and naivete, and that it explores Turtle’s family background more in-depth. However, the fact that book seems to gloss over a lot of the negative aspects does not have to be a negative for the book itself. Rather, it makes the graphic novel into an almost idyllic look at a lost way of life.

A great deal of the charm of this book comes from the clear love the creators have for Key West and the research they performed to depict a community from the 1930s. Turtle and her friends have fascinating adventures as they hunt for buried treasure, fish for sponges in the sea, and agree to babysit crying infants in exchange for candy (since no one has money with which to pay them). They meet characters such as an alleged rum runner, and a smooth-talking encyclopedia salesman. The book is a homage to a bygone era and, though some parts of life are clearly difficult, the characters never seem to dwell on things like their inability to buy shoes or the need for their relatives to find work far away from home. Instead, they go about their lives, finding fun and friendship where they can.

Turtle in Paradise is a charming read, the kind that draws readers into its world, making it feel real and immediate. I enjoyed reading about Turtle and her friends immensely, and I never wanted the story to end. I would love to return to Turtle’s Key West one day–and I only hope that Jennifer L. Holm decides to write more of her adventures!

4 stars

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee

Luck of the Titanic

Information

Goodreads: Luck of the Titanic
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2021

Official Summary

From the critically acclaimed author of The Downstairs Girl comes the richly imagined story of Valora and Jamie Luck, twin British – Chinese acrobats traveling aboard the Titanic on its ill fated maiden voyage.

Southampton, 1912: Seventeen-year-old British-Chinese Valora Luck has quit her job and smuggled herself aboard the Titanic with two goals in mind: to reunite with her twin brother Jamie–her only family now that both their parents are dead–and to convince a part-owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus to take the twins on as acrobats. Quick-thinking Val talks her way into opulent firstclass accommodations and finds Jamie with a group of fellow Chinese laborers in third class. But in the rigidly stratified world of the luxury liner, Val’s ruse can only last so long, and after two long years apart, it’s unclear if Jamie even wants the life Val proposes. Then, one moonless night in the North Atlantic, the unthinkable happens–the supposedly unsinkable ship is dealt a fatal blow–and Val and her companions suddenly find themselves in a race to survive.

Stacey Lee, master of historical fiction, brings a fresh perspective to an infamous tragedy, loosely inspired by the recently uncovered account of six Titanic survivors of Chinese descent.

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Review

Inspired by the lost stories of eight Chinese passengers on the Titanic, Luck of the Titanic brings a new perspective to a well-known tale. The book centers around teenaged Valora Luck, a girl in search of a new life in the United States after her employer dies. Her plan is simple: pretend her employer is still alive, board the Titanic as a servant, find her twin brother Jamie (who is working at sea), convince him to try out for the circus with her, and then go to America. Unfortunately, however, Valora has never heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which 30 years earlier had barred the immigration of Chinese workers to the U.S. and prevented Chinese individuals from obtaining citizenship. Still, undeterred, Valora hatches a daring plan to impersonate her employer and also try out for a part-owner of the Ringling Brothers. The premise is fun and will appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction focused on the relationships between the classes.

Although Luck of the Titanic is, of course, another Titanic book, the most interesting parts of the story arguably occur before the ship hits the iceberg. Valora may not be very good about coming up with solid plans, but she is determined and daring. It is entertaining to watch her impersonate her former employer, hiding behind a veil and pretending to be a grieving widow. She, of course, make allies in order to keep up the charade, and ends up wearing clothes to advertise an up-and-coming designer also on board–a plot point that helps to highlight the glamour of being a first-class passenger on board a luxury ship. Readers will revel in the details of all the elegance the lucky few were able to enjoy.

However, because Valora also must visit her brother and his friends in third class, Valora gives readers a unique window into the relationship between the classes on board. When she appears in first class behind her veil as an assumed white woman, Valora is treated with respect and gets to experience fine dining and other luxuries. When she disguises herself as a Chinese man, however, she experiences both classism and racism. Things as simple as requesting that the waiter bring bread to the table become a struggle. Her struggles highlight the challenges that the third class passengers faced to be treated with dignity, even on board a ship they had paid to be on. Readers no doubt will think of plenty of parallels in the modern-day world, where some still struggle to be treated equally.

Valora’s wild plans both to keep up her disguises and to try to convince her reluctant brother to join the circus with her are what really keep the plot engaging (even if Valora herself can come across at time as a bit self-centered). Once the ship actually hits the iceberg and the story becomes one of survival, the book begins to struggle a bit. Titanic stories have been done many times, and it can be difficult to make the story feel new, even with all its tragedy. Frankly, I kind of stopped caring about the plot once the characters just started running in circles around the ship. Even the ending failed to move me, though I recognize that it is probably supposed to part of some great character revelation for Valora.

Ultimately, however, Luck of the Titanic is an engaging novel sure to delight readers looking for a historical fiction that focuses on the little-known tales of the past. The interesting premise, combined with Valora’s amusing disguises and subterfuges, will keep readers turning pages, even if they know how it all must end.

4 stars

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed

The Black Kids

Information

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

Official Summary

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

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

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Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells by Gail Carson Levine

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells

Information

Goodreads: A Ceiling Made of Eggshells
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 2020

Summary

Paloma (Loma) lives in the judería of Alcalá de Henares, where she dreams of one day becoming a mother and having children of her own. But her abuelo wants her to travel with him, to see the king and the queen of Spain, and to help Jews across the country. Loma agrees, because her abuelo insists it is for the good of the Jews. But, as the years pass, she wonders if she will have to give up her dream forever.

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Review

Gail Carson Levine’s latest book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, is a historical fiction set in the Spain of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. It follows young Paloma–known as Loma to her family–from the age of eight to the age of sixteen, as she travels with her grandfather, a man who works tirelessly for the good of the Jews. Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern what age range this book is meant to appeal to, and the characterization of Loma is not strong enough to make her seem particularly interesting. A Ceiling Made of Eggshells does draw attention to a period of history not often covered in middle grade books. However, while the premise is intriguing, the execution ultimately falls short.

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells has a slow start, covering the days as they pass Loma by in the (relative) safety of her home. The plague visits her family and she witnesses some anti-Semitic action in the neighborhood. As a child, however, she is mostly concerned with the household, and obsessed with her all-consuming desire to one day be a mother and have children of her own. To that end, she always volunteers to look after her nieces and nephews, as well as her mother’s new babies. This peace is finally interrupted when her abuelo declares Loma a smart girl who must travel with him “for the good of the Jews.”

Here the book exhibits a flaw: Loma’s grandfather insists she is unusual and that her traveling with him is of the utmost necessity. However, as the book progresses over eight years, Loma exhibits no incredible talents, no quick thinking, no exceptional intelligence–until the final chapters of the book. Most of the time, it is unclear why she is traveling at all. The reality is simply that her abuelo likes having her around; Loma is not doing anything directly to help her people, except being a comfort to her important relative.

This dynamic introduces the main conflict of the story. Loma desires to have children, but her grandfather insists that her “work” with him is more important. I think readers will largely appreciate Loma’s selflessness, her desire to do good for others. Unfortunately, to build up this conflict, Levine relies on one of her signature writing moves: the constant repetition of a single trait to define a culture or a character. In this case, Levine wishes to define Loma as child-loving, so Loma spends the entire book obsessing over children. She notes every time she sees one, every time she wishes to speak with one, every time she gets to share a bed with one on her travels. A lot of people like children and many people want to have children. But I don’t know anyone who can’t see a child pass by in the street without obsessing over their extreme desire to be wed and finally be a mother. It’s just…weird.

Because the book covers eight years, it is a little difficult to determine who the audience is. Loma starts out as an eight-year-old and ends as a teenager. She starts as a naïve child who believes in magic amulets and ends as an almost-woman who worries over what unsavory men might do to her on her travels. Annoyingly, however, despite this change, her voice remains exactly the same throughout the book. One can only assume Loma is meant to be narrating years later, though this is never specified. This large gap, along with the slow pacing of the story, makes the book rather unusual for the modern market. Older titles such as Little Women have covered the transition from girlhood to womanhood, of course, but I cannot say that A Ceiling Made of Eggshells does so with the same fluidity.

Ultimately, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells will probably appeal to readers who love Gail Carson Levine and readers looking for a historical fiction set in Spain–something not commonly found on the market today. However, I admit that, even though I am a fan of Levine, I do not believe A Ceiling Made of Eggshells lives up to her previous works like Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre. It was interesting to see what Levine is up to today, but I am not overly impressed.

3 Stars

I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy

Information

Goodreads: I Will Repay
Series: Scarlet Pimpernel Publication Order #2 (Chronological #3)
Source: Library
Published: 1906

Summary

Ten years ago, Juliette Marny swore an oath to ruin the man who killed her brother. But then she falls in love with her sworn enemy. Can she risk her soul–and that of her brother’s–to protect the man she loves?

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Review

This melodramatic sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel is just the kind of high stakes, over-the-top drama I expect from a Baroness Orczy title. Young Juliette Marny has sworn an oath to her now-dead father to avenge the death of her brother by ruining the man who took his life. But, when she meets the man, Paul Déroulède, ten years later, she unexpectedly finds him to be a good man–one whom she loves. Juliette then has to decide. Is it right to be the cause of a good man’s death? Is it wrong to break an oath sworn to God Himself? I Will Repay is a riveting story, sure to please readers who enjoy a book that never takes itself too seriously.

The plot of I Will Repay is all very contrived, of course, and perhaps modern readers will not feel as strongly as Juliette the gravity of breaking an oath that so obviously seems perverse. However, Orczy tries to let readers into the mind of Juliette, suggesting that her youth, combined with a Catholic fervency, has primed Juliette to be extremely impressionable, especially to heighted emotions and circumstances. She has sworn an oath that asks her brother’s soul never to find peace if she does not ruin the man who killed him. Naturally, if she believes this oath to be true, she will be hesitant to break it, even for the man she loves.

Juliette’s battling emotions are the backdrop against which the story is set, and they find a fitting counterpart in the heightened emotions following the French Revolution. The country has essentially been given over to mob rule, and Juliette and Paul must figure out how to offend no one, even though their wealth and lineage mark them as prime enemies of the state. Their balancing act adds yet another layer of drama to the story, and sets the stage for the entrance of the Scarlet Pimpernel, that bold Englishman who snatches men and women from the jaws of the guillotine.

Readers who enjoy Sir Percy may be disappointed to find that he plays only a small role in I Will Repay, but, for me, the focus on new characters is part of what makes the story interesting. Juliette and Paul’s little drama somewhat mirrors that of Percy’s and Marguerite’s in the first book. Orczy loves a star-crossed romance, and she truly puts Paul’s love to the test as he must decide whether the woman who betrayed his trust is worthy of forgiveness. This journey proves important for the story, however, which can read as a little dated with its depiction of men and women. Juliette’s fall from grace serves to take Juliette down from the pedestal Paul has placed her on and show her to be a living, breathing human with flaws.

Baroness Orczy specializes in dramatic action stories, where everything seems just a little over the top. However, her ability to write dynamic characters, combined with a fast-paced plot full of danger and romance makes her storytelling absolutely riveting. Some may find the gender stereotypes depicted off-putting. However, if one is willing to accept that Orczy was writing in a different historical context, her instinct for drama is second to none.

4 stars

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Ill. by Brian Pinkney

Loretta Little Looks Back

Information

Goodreads: Loretta Little Looks Back
Series: None
Source: Received from publisher in exchange for an honest review
Published: September 2020

Summary

Three children narrate their experiences growing up under the sharecropping system from 1927 to 1968. Illustrated by Caldecott honoree Brian Pinkney.

Star Divider

Review

Loretta Little Looks Back is a moving account of one family’s history from sharecropping to mobilizing to help people register to vote. Spanning the years from 1927-1968, it begins with Loretta’s account of picking cotton and ends with her niece Aggie B’s experiences with SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement. Bridging their stories is Loretta’s brother Roly, a boy who likes to move slowly and take his time. His daughter’s boldness, however, will show him that, sometimes, the time to take action is now. Told in a multimedia format with spoken word poetry, first-person narratives inspired by oral history, and stage directions, Loretta Little Looks Back is an immersive story that asks the readers to sit back, listen, and learn.

The narration is one of the most powerful elements of the book, bringing Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B’s stories to life through their distinctive voices. Each one gives their own perspective on how racism affects their lives, from Loretta’s days spent picking cotton for a man who never honors his agreements to Roly’s inability to make his farm successful, due to vengeful neighbors, to Aggie’s determination that unjust laws will not stop her from registering her family and friends to vote. Though they face many hardships, each one perseveres in the best way they know how, ultimately making the story one of hope and personal triumph. Readers will be inspired the characters’ strength and determination, as well as their love and care for one another.

Andrea Davis Pinkey presents an important story that focuses on a little-taught moment of U.S. history, the Jim Crow era. Readers of historical fiction will want to pick up this book to learn more about the lives of Black Americans during this time period. The end note explains that the book is based on real events, inspired by interviews and oral histories given about individuals’ experiences under the sharecropping system. References to real historical figures and events add to the educational aspect of the work. Readers who want to know more about these figures can refer to the end matter, which includes several historical notes as well as a bibliography for further reading.

Loretta Little Looks Back delivers a unique reading experience that will draw readers into Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B’s story. The heartbreak of living under a system designed to keep them down is palpable in their words, but so are their everyday delights and triumphs. Readers searching for a historical fiction sure to have an impact will want to pick up Andrea Davis Pinkey’s work.

4 stars