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

Spying on Miss Mueller by Eve Bunting

Spying on Miss MuellerINFORMATION

Goodreads: Spying on Miss Mueller
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1995

SUMMARY

Miss Mueller, half-Irish and half-German, has always been a favorite of the girls at Alveara boarding school, but WWII has made that teacher an outcast.  Then one night Jessie sees Miss Mueller wandering up to the roof.  Could it be that Miss Mueller is really a German spy?

REVIEW

Spying on Miss Mueller is a classic 90s historical fiction/coming-of-age novel, and that may or may not be a good thing.  Perhaps some will find reading it nostalgic.  I thought the book felt a little dated, and that I was perhaps too old to read and appreciate it now.

The charm of this for middle schoolers is, I think, obvious.  It’s set in a boarding school in Ireland during WWII–all very romantic stuff for young readers.  Furthermore, there’s a lot of girl talk going on; Jessie and her friends like to lie awake at night and talk about boys, or even pass notes about them during class. Younger readers might find all this very tantalizing or even daring–the boys and girls are mingling in the dark, even kissing!   Much of this is very amusing to an older reader, however–the girls constantly speculate about what horrible thing one girl must have done to be asked to leave, or what it is that the boys and girls do behind the shed.  The girls all like to act like they know–but clearly none of them do.

Aside from Jessie’s dreams of the handsome Ian McManus, the book is filled with speculations about the titular Miss Mueller.  Can it be her father was a Nazi?  Why is she wandering the halls after hours?  Can they still love Miss Mueller and be good citizens?  These are intriguing questions for girls in time of war.  As an older reader, however, I could not help but sigh.  Here are girls blaming a half-German woman in Ireland for what Germany is doing.  They are prepared to ruin her life, if they can, in retaliation for events she has no control over.  The cruelty and hatred of children is astounding.

The answers to me were obvious.  The woman is not a criminal and there is no reason to make her life horrible or to try to hurt her.  So watching the girls speculate about her actions and form plans to reveal her supposed spying activities was not amusing.  I didn’t even feel a sick fascination as one might from reading The Lord of the Flies.  I just felt jaded.  These girls know so little and are so mean.  Reading felt more like plodding.

And the whole structure and writing style of the book reminded me of the 90s so much that I couldn’t help but be amused.  I never really liked those kinds of coming-of-age stories, the ones where they worry about their bra size or kissing or whatever.  So I had no fond memories to fall back upon while reading this; I just thought it was funny that it was so easy to know exactly when this book had been published.

I do love a good boarding school story, but this one, apparently was not for me.

3 starsKrysta 64

Writing Rambles: Tips for Writing Historical Dialogue

historical-dialogue-min

Are you interested in writing historical fiction? Or a story set in a pseudo-historical time period? Here are some of my best tips for writing authentic-sounding, readable dialogue.

Immerse Yourself in the Language

I noted in a post I wrote a couple years ago about fantasy dialogue that one of the number one issues authors can run into is not really knowing what the dialogue they’re aiming for should sound like.  For instance, it is very common for people to use the term “Old English” to refer to anything from Jane Austen’s language to Shakespeare’s.  In fact, Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) was spoken from about 450-1100 AD–and it’s not even readable to people without training.  Before you write historical dialogue, you want to have a grasp of the facts.

My number one tip: Read a lot literature from the time period you want to emulate.  Immerse yourself in the language.  Get a feel for the sentence structure, the vocabulary, and other patterns. And, beyond simply reading a bunch of books from, say, the 1700s, try paying attention to detail and taking notes on what catches your eye about the language.  You don’t have to emulate the language exactly, but you want to have a working knowledge of what it really sounds like from people who actually spoke and wrote it.

Be Realistic: Literary Vs. Everyday Language

Keep in mind, however, that “literary language” has always existed.  It’s well-documented that the language everyday people spoke in various time periods often significantly differed from the language writers would use in their texts.  The language of The Iliad is not truly the language of Ancient Greece.  The language of Shakespeare is not always the language of the English Renaissance.  So if the writing from a particular time period sounds rather formal and sophisticated (or just plain artificial) to you, there’s a chance it is.  You’re perfectly free to tone it down for your characters, particularly ones who wouldn’t be well-educated or well-read.

Aim for Moderation: Give a Sense of the Period

Realistically, most authors are never going to write “perfect” historical prose.  (In the case of Middle English or Old English, you wouldn’t even want to because few people would even be able to read what you’ve written.)  Something to consider, then, is adding just enough “older” touches to your language, either in terms of sentence structure or vocabulary choice, to give your readers a taste of the time period you are going for.  Too much old-timey language could be distracting or annoying. (Think about novels you’ve read where an author has overdone a character’s accent, and the character came across as a caricature rather than a believable person.)  You just need to give your readers an accurate impression of historical language; you don’t need to give them the full deal.

Watch for Disjunction

The key to writing any dialogue is making it sound realistic enough that the prose itself is actually unremarkable.  You never want a reader to stop and think “That sounds really odd” or “Sheesh, teenagers don’t use this much slang” or “This character has such a thick accent it’s just silly.”  You simply want the reader to be able to keep reading because nothing is unusual enough to pull him or her out of the story.  In novels (either historical fiction or fantasy) where you are going for an “older” tone of dialogue, these are some areas to keep in mind:

Narration Vs. Dialogue

Think about how well the prose of your narration blends with the prose of your dialogue. Is one far more formal than the other?  Are the characters speaking something that sounds like authentic Middle English, but the narration is far more modern?  Any distinct differences between the narration and the characters’ speech will pull readers out of the story each time a character starts or stops speaking, as they will have to readjust to the language.

This is particularly true if your novel is told from a first person point of view. It’s going to be noticeable if your protagonist narrates events (or “speaks to the reader”) in modern English but speaks to other characters in Shakespearean English.  This will create the odd illusion the the character is capable of speaking both forms of English and is for some reason code-switching throughout the novel.  In this case, you might consider going for a casually “older” style of prose throughout the novel, adding just enough touches to make the language seem authentic for the period but not going so over the top your readers have trouble following the story.

Switching Narrative Time Periods (Flashbacks)

If you’re writing a story that switches between modern events and historical events (for whatever plot reasons), consider toning down the historical language in the scenes that take place in the past.  This is a story in which you really might want to give your readers “just a taste” of historical dialogue. It could be jarring to readers if one chapter they’re reading about teenagers from 2014 and the next chapter they’re reading about people from 1600.  Each time the prose style drastically changes, the readers will notice and need to mentally readjust.  (Imagine trying to alternately read sections of Shakespeare and Steinbeck.)

Mixing Historical Periods

This goes back to point one: knowing the language of the time period you want to emulate.  Whatever you do, you want to be consistent in your language usage.  A reader might not notice if an eighteenth century character generally speaks very modern English, as long as the characters in the book always speak modern English.  It will, however, catch readers’ attention if the characters fail to stick to one time period with their language usage.  You don’t want to use language that just sound generically “old” without discretion.  If your characters mix styles from the nineteenth century, the seventeenth century, and the fifteenth century, it’s going to come across as odd.  Pick one and do your best to stick to it.

Conclusion

Remember, readability is often more important than getting your historical diction 100% accurate. Of course, you don’t want to write something completely absurd or noticeably anachronistic. However, if your target audience isn’t historical experts, keep in mind what their reading experience will be like.  Often, giving them the flavor of the time period rather than a full-on immersive experience into an older-sounding language will be what keeps them in the story.

Have you written historical dialogue?  What are your best tips?  Have you read any books that did the older language particularly well (or particularly badly)?

Briana

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

GalleryINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Gallery
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: June 2016

SUMMARY

In 1928,  Martha goes to work as a kitchen maid in the house of Mr. Sewell, a rich newspaper magnate.  But mystery surrounds her.  Sewell’s wife Rose is kept locked upstairs, apparently suffering from mental illness.  And yet Rose keeps sending down paintings from her renowned gallery.  Is Rose trying to send a message?  From the author of Under the Egg.

Review

From the opening pages, it’s impossible not to wonder if this book is truly meant for middle-grade readers.  It begins with the testy musings of a 100-year-old Martha, who makes biting comments about the young reporter who comes to visit her and suggests a certain bitterness that older readers might understand but younger readers mighht not.  When Martha begins her story proper, set in the Roaring 20s, tales of lurid love affairs, drunken fathers, drugged individuals, and madness fill the pages.  It culminates in a true 1920s raging party, with a list of famous individuals passed out on the floor and a man shown cheating on his wife.  I suspect that it’s Martha’s age that has this book labelled as MG; otherwise I think it would have landed in the YA section.

Surprisingly, however, I found this book pretty dull.  It centers around the mystery of a seemingly mad wife trapped in her own home and sending messages through her paintings.  Good stuff, right?  But the plot moves so slowly and the clues are often so clunky that I found I was not much interested.  For instance, there’s a mad wife and a servant in love with her employer.  How do we discover this?  A copy of Jane Eyre is lying around.  You might as well have hit the reader over the head with a copy of Bronte’s book, that’s how awkward it felt.

This kind of mystery-making, along with the not-so-subtle dropping of names from Sacco and Vanzetti to Cole Porter made it seem as if the book was trying just a little too hard to be all historical fictiony. It was enough that Martha works for a newspaper man, so mentions of Herbert Hoover’s campaign and Martha’s neighborhood’s support for the opposition, Al Smith, who suffers from anti-Catholic prejudice (neatly tied in with Martha and her neighborhood’s own Catholicism) work into the tale.  But then the party list and some of the other characters almost become a who’s who of 1920s America and it borders on the unbelievable, seeing as Sewell himself generally hosts no company yet suddenly becomes the center of famous America.

Maybe two-thirds of the way through the pacing picks up and I finally found myself interested, but just when things were getting good, the author abruptly switches gears.  [Spoiler for the end.]  The entire book Martha has been working to solve the mystery of Rose and to convince others that there is a mystery to be solved.  Then one day she walks back into the house and all the servants are sitting there having solved the mystery.  No explanation offered.  One can imagine what might have happened, but it is never explained.  How disappointing!

I enjoyed Under the Egg, so I plodded steadily on through this new offering from Fitzgerald, but I never imagined the 1920s could be so dull.

3 starsKrysta 64

An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo

Elephant in the GardenINFORMATION

Goodreads: An Elephant in the Garden
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 2009

SUMMARY

It’s WWII and Lizzie and Karli’s father is off fighting while their mother tries to take care of  not only them but also the animals in the zoo she works at.  Then comes the news that if Dresden is bombed, the large animals will have to be shot for the safety of the citizens.  But their mother has raised the elephant Marlene from birth and convinces the zoo director that she can care for Marlene in her own garden.  But  when the bombs come, how can the family find refuge with an elephant in tow?

REVIEW

I picked up An Elephant in the Garden skeptically, remembering how War Horse had fallen short of my expectations,.  The book had lacked the complexity of the film and I feared this book, too, would be too simple for my liking.  However, even though the book is clearly written for a younger audience, I still found it charming.  Having a book that’s easy to read and predictable in its outcome is not always a bad thing.

Some authors can write for children with much of the same nuance and complexity they give adults; Morpurgo is not this author.  He writes historical fiction, often set in WWII, yet seems to shy away from the true horrors of war.  Here the narrator, Lizzie, mentions being hungry and tired as a refugee.  She describes watching her city burn, bombed by the Allies.  And yet none of it really hurts.  It’s all too far away now, an exhibit in a museum and not the story of a real, aching heart.  The framing device, of course, helps with this–Morpurgo makes an older Lizzie tell her story to a nursing  home worker and her son–thus young readers can always be assured that everything is all right now, everything turned out okay.  Older Lizzie is here to drink her water dutifully under the nurse’s eye to remind us that she lived.

The story itself is a rather simple arc.  The children watch their father go to war, watch their mother try to make ends meet.  They meet the elephant then must flee when Dresden goes up in flames.  Of course other predictable events happen  (spoilers till the end of the paragraph!) like meeting a handsome young Allied soldier.  Everyone who’s read any historical fiction will know he’s about to become a love interest, despite the fact that it’s easy to forget, from the way she acts, that Lizzie is sixteen and not ten.  Other predictable events occur, none of it too traumatic, all things considered, since a war is going on.  You’d think someone would be gravely injured or even die.  You’d be wrong, because this is a children’s book and we can’t upset anyone.

Ultimately, it does seem a little strange to write a book about WWII for children if you seem to think children can’t handle the horrors of WWII.  If I ignore the background setting, however, and focus on the story of Marlene, I find the book quite charming.  I guess it’s difficult to write a bad book when an elephant is the star!

3 starsKrysta 64