Review: All Our Pretty Songs

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Two girls, best friends since they were born. Sharing so much: heartaches, family, music. They are not identical, no, but rather they complement each other. “Aurora breaks hearts, and I paint pictures.” Aurora drinks her nights away, knowing her best friend will always be there to make sure she gets home again. Then there is the show where the two girls meet Jack. Beautiful, talented Jack.

Jack and his music will change everything.

The Good: This book can be read two different ways. Which I love.

The unnamed narrator (and how much do I love that we never learn her name) are the daughters of two former best friends. Cass (the narrator’s mother) and Mia (Aurora’s mother) were much like their daughters: living for music, for shows, for the moment, and for musicians. Aurora’s father became famous, and then died, leaving shattered family and friends. Mia has money but she also floats around in a daze of drugs and alcohol. Cass knew she couldn’t get sober and be around Mia, so she picked sober. Cass and her daughter have been struggling financially ever since.

That is the background, all happening before the book, before the summer the girls turn seventeen. Despite their mothers’ estrangement, despite the difference in finances, the girls remain the best of friends. All they really need is each other; together they go to clubs and stay out late. Aurora is the wild child, the golden girl who everyone wants to be and to be with — including the narrator. The narrator offers loyalty, love, fidelity, but she knows she doesn’t shine like Aurora. “People like Aurora don’t have to live with consequences.

And then — Jack. And who is Jack interested in, who does he want? The narrator. She loves Jack, he loves her, and she tries to fight that insecurity and jealousy that makes her wonder about Aurora, and why Jack didn’t pick Aurora, — if I were Jack, she thinks, I’d pick Aurora.

I don’t want to call this a triangle: it’s deeper and more complicated than that. A “triangle” would diminish that.

I love the narrator’s relationship with Jack. Aurora is her best friend and a soul mate; but Jack is a lover, the one who makes her feel things she’s never felt before. Her love, her passion, her desire was so wonderfully shown.

And her poor mother, Cass! Cass, who in some ways is seeing herself as a teenager and what do you do when your daughter follows in your footsteps? How do you tell her to say no when you, yourself, said yes yes yes at that age? Cass is doing her best to be a good mother, and her sacrifices have included the friendship and financial security of being Mia’s friend.

What happens next is one of two things. It depends on how you want to read it.

In one, dark creatures from before time still lurk around our world, offering deals to those willing to make trades. They want Aurora; they want Jack. The narrator is determined to save those she loves from hell. “None of the creatures from that world understand the way human emotions work. They’re all mimicking what they see in us. They can’t create things. They can only steal from us. They’re forever crossing over to wreak havoc because they’re jealous.

In the other, well, those creatures and deals aren’t real. What is real? Drugs and ambition, and that addiction is as real a hell and temptation as any devil. That someone who lives for music will do whatever is needed for that music. And anything else is a hallucination of drugs and need. And those creatures? Those are us, the consumers of other’s crafts.

Either way? And textually, there is more to support the first reading — either way, I love, love, love this book. I love how the narrator loves both Aurora and Jack, and how her insecurity is based not so much in how she views herself as how she views Aurora.

And, I like the way race figures into this book. The narrator is white; Aurora and Jack are not. Neither is the narrator’s boss, Raoul. At one point, the narrator is talking about her love and concern for her friends and Raoul brings skin color into the equation, pointing out her privilege and how her wanting to “save” them is partly her deciding what she wants for Aurora and Jack matters more to her than what Aurora and Jack want for themselves and how she cannot know what it is they want and need: “Look at her. Look at both of them. Do you ever think about what a curse it might be, to look like that? To know that no matter what you were made of, no matter what you did with your life, no one would ever see past your face? Your skin?” 

The narrator’s reaction is, but I love Jack! And I love Aurora! She wants to save them! And Raoul asks her to think about what it is he has said, and what she’s still saying. And this is why I like my theory that there are no real dark creatures and hell, just life, because what Jack is choosing is not a deal with a devil for his music, but rather, he is choosing a life where his music comes first, over love. 

And — the ending!

I love this book; I love the writing; I love that it’s the reader’s choice as to whether or not to believe that Cass is a witch; I love the complicated look at love and lust, ambition, family. So, yes a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Bonus: The paperback copy I read included a sample chapter for McCarry’s next book, Dirty Wings, due out Spring 2014. It’s the story of Mia and Cass as teens.

Other reviews: Book Smugglers; Slatebreakers; author guest post at YA Highway; author interview at X O Jane.

Review: Untold

Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan. The Lynburn Legacy, Book 2. Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: In Unspoken, seventeen year old Kami Glass learned the truth about her village, Sorry-in-the-Vale. Short version: sorcerers are real. Kami’s family may not be sorcerers, but they have the potential to be something just as valuable: a source, magnifying a sorcerer’s magic.

In Untold, now that the secret is no longer so secret, the sorcerers want to take over her village, and reinstate the old ways. Real old ways: like human sacrifice.

Kami is not about to let that happen. Not to her village. 

So what if she’s not sure who is or isn’t a sorcerer? Or whose side anyone is on? Or that she’s not even quite sure where her own mother stands?

She’s Kami Glass. The sorcerers better watch out.

Well, if only it were that easy . . . .

The Good: Despite the fact that Untold is about evil sorcerers who view regular humans as below them in the food chain, so think that human sacrifice isn’t too much to ask, and has terrifying scarecrows coming to life to attack people, despite all that, I’d love to visit Sorry-in-the-Vale and hang out with Kami and her friends. (Well, as seventeen year old me.) Because Kami and her friends are funny and brave. Yes, they’re scared, but they don’t let that stop them.

I have to emphasize this great mix of humor and guts because Sarah Rees Brennan does it so splendidly. That I can laugh and be scared at the same time? Excellent.

Here’s a bit, where Kami’s friend Rusty describes the Lynburn cousins, Jared and Ash: “Jared and Ash – or, as I think of them, Sulky and Blondie – are still sorcerer trainees.” Not only did I laugh, but it’s a great, irreverent look that at the two powerful teen sorcerers that also reveals Rusty’s personality. And yes, Jared is all Mr. Broody while Ash is Mr. Handsome.

The first book, Unspoken, set up Kami’s world, introducing the reader gradually to the reality of magic and murder and sorcerers, of lies told to protect and to mislead. Now that the rules are set up, the fun can really start. OK, so it’s not fun — but in a way, it is. Yes, it is a matter of life and death; of freedom. And there are moments of betrayal and doubt. But it’s also fun, to spend time with Kami and her friends.

Rob Lynburn is the powerful sorcerer who has plotted to take control of Sorry-in-the-Vale; he and his sister-in-law, Rosalind (the mother of Jared) are in league against his wife, Lillian (mother of Ash.) In the first book, Kami was Jared’s source, which made him a stronger sorcerer. That link was broken, and Kami is left uncertain about her relationship with Jared. Where her feelings for him true? What does he think about her? It used to be easy, because the link meant that they could hear each other’s thoughts. Now, not so much, and it’s complicated by Ash.

Untold begins with the attack of the scarecrows: it’s scary but also a bit funny, and emphasizes the power of Rob’s sorcery but also how even this can be fought against, by both regular and magical means.

Lillian is as arrogant as her husband, Rob, but with one crucial difference. She believes the Lynburns are rightful leaders and sorcerers, but she doesn’t believe in things like human sacrifice. She’s disappointed that her son, Ash, followed his father for a time. She thinks that Kami — especially now that she is no longer Jared’s source — is a nuisance who gets in the way. Lillian is good only in contrast to Rob and her follower’s, but despite that (or maybe because of it?) she is one of my favorite characters. As Kami observes late in the book, “Kami had never actually liked Lillian, but she admired her for a moment, with all her heart, and then her heart sank.”

Kami and Lillian are both strategizing against Rob, with Kami’s the primary story, of course, and Lillian’s in the background. As you may remember from my post about When Adults Read Books For Teens, that’s how I think it should be. What Brennan does masterfully in this series is she does so without getting rid of the adults, or having them unreasonably ignorant or stupid or cowardly. The adults such as Lillian and Kami’s own parents are doing things, they just aren’t the main point of the story. And that is part of what is so great about the plotting in Untold; it makes sense, the roles and power that the different characters have.

The third book, Unmade, is due out in September. Luckily, not too long a wait! There is a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of Untold, but not anything too frustrating or to make one throw the book against the wall. The main plot of Untold is wrapped up; the end is more a hint of what has to be taken care of in the third book. (And let me say, I don’t envy Brennan, because I have no idea how all of this is going to work out.)

So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Other reviews: YA Bibliophile; Speculating on SpecFic; Book Lovers for Life.

Review: Maggot Moon

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Standish Treadwell, fifteen, is dyslexic. He has different colored eyes, one blue, one brown. He lives with his grandfather; his parents are gone. He had one friend, Hector, and Hector is also gone.

Standish’s world is one of fear and lies, of hiding and barely surviving. The red and black flag of the Motherland hangs on the classroom wall. People who are different, people who question, people who have something wrong with them, disappear, either to be maggot meat or to be reeducated.

The Motherland is about to prove its world superiority by putting a man on the moon.

Hector discovered a secret behind the wall of Zone Seven. A secret that may place Standish in danger. Should he run? Or is it possible to fight back?

The Good: While I had heard of Maggot Moon before it got a Printz Honor, I hadn’t paid much attention to what it was about. Which means that when I began reading, I had no idea. “What the heck is going on?” is pretty close to what I was thinking in the first twenty-odd pages.

What is going on? It’s a bit of a puzzle for the reader to put together. There is the Motherland, it’s red and black flag. A war lost. A wall topped with glass. Mothers for Purity. Rewards for large families. And, finally, a date is given: Thursday, 19th July 1956.

Maggot Moon is set in an alternate universe, in an alternate history, a timeline a wee bit different from our own. Standish’s country lost a war years and years ago; and now Standish lives in dystopian world. Standish is telling the story, in his own way, which means that it’s simply his story. There is little explanation or exposition. Instead, the reader can fill in the pieces, try to connect the dots, attempt to understand. Just from that, from how the story is told, is enough to see why this got a Printz nod.

And the language, Standish’s turn of phrase! “The what ifs are as boundless as the stars,” which describes not just life but also the chain of history that creates Standish’s world. Later, he describes “my heart an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water.

The setting and Standish’s world is another element. His school is harsh and demanding, with bullies among both students and teachers. A brutal death half way through illustrates just how precarious and dangerous Standish’s world is. It also shows some surprising sides of people Standish knows. It’s not a simple place or time.

In some ways, Standish seems young. He dreams of escape, of the land of Croca-Cola and Cadillacs. Since the Motherland will soon land on the moon, he dreams of a better planet, Juniper, to escape to, He builds a small spaceship out of odds and ends, half believing it will work. What he describes is far from young: the circumstances surrounding his parents disappearances. People becoming maggot meat. A brutal death. And the end . . . what Standish ends up doing, and the results, are quite serious. This is a perfect example of how a book can be about serious, dark things, yet does so in a way that it takes a while to realize just how dark it is.

I wonder at what age the readers will fully appreciate the clues as to what Standish’s world is, and isn’t. While “Nazis” and “Soviets” are never terms that are used, it seems that his world is one where a country such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia conquered England and controls most of Europe.  (Personally, I only considered a Nazi occupied England; reading other reviews is what made me also think it could be the Soviets, or any dictatorship.) Croca-Cola reminds one of another, very American beverage, as does the references to Cadillacs and a TV show starring a woman having a ball. (If you get that last one, that’s exactly what I mean by what is needed to fully understand the time and place and alternate history of Standish’s world.)

What, you may be asking, did Hector discover? It’s a stunning secret, and it not only brings about Hector and his family disappearing but also forces Standish to take a stand.

Other reviews: Someday My Printz Will Come; CrossReferencing (Mark and Sarah); Pretty Books.

 

 

 

Review: GO

GO: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd. Workman Publishing. 2013. Library copy. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

It’s About: A book about graphic design, designed in such a way to both show and tell what graphic design is.

The Good: To be honest, the nonfiction titles on the YALSA Nonfiction Finalist that are about history are ones that I would want to read anyway. One thing I like about my self-imposed challenge to read all the titles on the list is it pushes me to read outside my typical scope of interests.

GO is terrific. I love how Kidd both tells the reader what graphic design is, but also shows it, using pictures, fonts, and other design features.

GO isn’t a lecture: it’s a discussion, immersing the reader into graphic design and inviting them to think about the things around them that otherwise they wouldn’t notice. “Most of the decisions you make, every day, are by design” — and GO asks the reader to think about that. As Kidd later explains, “graphic design needs your willing mental participation, even if it’s subconscious.” Asking one to examine that subconscious — here in the context of graphic design — is a good exercise for anything. What choices do we make, what do we “know,” what are we deciding without realizing that indeed a judgment took place?

I also liked what GO had to say about problem solving: “but the main thing to learn about graphic design problem-solving is that the best solution can usually be found in the best definition of the problem itself.

GO ends with suggestions of projects the reader can actually do — and invites the reader to share those projects with Kidd at gothebook.com.

Other reviews: Amy Hood Arts; Graphic Design; New York Times interview with Kidd.

 

Review: Imprisoned

Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II by Martin W. Sandler. Walker Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Bloomsbury. 2013. Review copy from publisher. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

It’s About: The United States entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The history of the Japanese in the US had never been easy or welcoming. There was the 1924 Immigration Act, called the Japanese Exclusion Act; there were laws forbidding property ownership by those born outside the US. Despite this, Japanese Americans created successful lives.

Then, Pearl Harbor.

The reaction against Japanese Americans was swift. In 1942, Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and put into camps.

Why this happened, how it happened, and what happened after is the story of Imprisoned.

The Good: I was familiar with the general story of the Japanese American internment camps. Mostly, I admit, from a line or two in history class, and books and movies.

Imprisoned shares all the details, the years of prejudices and fears that led to politicians and others believing, without any proof, that Japanese American citizens, of all ages, were a significant military threat justifying their imprisonment. And, because of the nature of the imprisonment, it was also the loss of property and homes and businesses that had to be left behind or sold at a loss; it was the nature of the imprisonment; the loss of freedom, the humiliation.

It is hard to read. It is hard to see the photos, and to wonder what one’s own grandparents and great grandparents did or didn’t do. It is impossible to believe that people would be ordered out of their homes, out of their lives, to camps just because of the country where their ancestors were born.

And yet it did happen. And Imprisoned shows why and how, with the photographs to underscore that these were men, women, teens, and children this was happening to. In addition to the politicians and the military and organizations, there are also the personal stories. Stories that include the men and women who, despite how their government treated them, volunteering to serve their country in the armed forces.

Imprisoned is also the story of “after,” when people were allowed to go “home.” Of the silence, at first, of those who were interned. And of how the political activism of the 1960s and 1970s helped end that silence, leading to official apologies by the US government. And of why it matters — that it’s not “just” something in the past.

Other reviews: My Head is Full of Books; The Children’s War; Bookends, a Booklist blog.

 

Review: Courage Has No Color

Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone. Candlewick Press. 2013. Library copy. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

It’s About: During World War II, the US Armed Forces were segregated. This discrimination also included what roles African American men were, and weren’t, allowed.

Combat? No. Cleaning? Yes.

Courage Has No Color is the story of one group of men who challenged and helped change the status quo: the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the “Triple Nickles.”

What is courage? What is strength? Perhaps it is being ready to fight for your nation even when your nation isn’t ready to fight for you.”

The Good: Courage Has No Color is one of my favorite types of nonfiction stories: it tells a particular, specific story (that of the Triple Nickles) against a bigger story: the integration of the US Armed Forces. It’s a story of both how individuals can make a difference, as well as how organizations work to make change. And it’s about just how big a fight it was, quoting white officer in World War I as saying  “The Negro must be rated as second class material, this due primarily to his inferior intelligence and lack of mental and moral qualifications.

First Sergeant Walter Morris was in charge of the Service Company of The Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Service Company guarded the facility. “He wanted [the soldiers] ‘to act like soldiers,  not servants.'” Morris decided to have his soldiers do what the white soldiers in training did: the physical training. Morale improved. When Morris was ordered to report to the commandant of The Parachute School, he wondered if he would be in trouble. Instead, he found out that an all-black unite of paratroopers was being formed, and that he and the men he had already begun to train would be part of it.

That is the type of history I enjoy: the “bigger picture” of the politicians and groups who were pushing to expand opportunities at the same time that individuals were doing so, also; and how that comes together to create change. That change isn’t quick; and the change isn’t what you’d expect from a fictional story. For example, the Triple Nickles never see active combat during World War II. Instead, they train and train, and then are sent to be smoke-jumpers in the west. Part of the war justification for this was the presence of Japanese balloon bombs. And so the story of the Triple Nickles becomes even more layered.

Courage Has No Color addresses the issues of segregation, and World War II, and the treatment of returning service men; the prejudices of leaders, which meant that people were excluded from medals and honors and parades. And it talks about the changes made, in the military. The Triple Nickles weren’t formed in isolation and there were people and places I wanted to learn more about, like Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the highest ranking black officer in the Army. And the Tuskegee Airman, and the 761st Tank Battalion.

Other reviews: an interview with Tanya Lee Stone; Someday My Printz Will Come; Reading Rumpus Book Reviews; Bookends, a Booklist blog.

Review: Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. Personal copy. Morris shortlist.

The Plot: James Whitcomb, sixteen, has nicknames for his parents: the Brute and the Banshee.

That may be all you need to know about his home life. But here’s some more: his parents threw his older sister out of the house. All James wants is for her parents to allow Jorie back in the house. Well, and for the school to un-expell her so she can graduate high school.

As for high school — well, James loves Walt Whitman poetry so Yawps a lot. He has been known to hug a tree. And then there’s the time when he tried to impress a girl, Beth King, by saving a bird and ended up getting hit by a school bus. Oh, and he managed to save a Tastykake wrapper. Not a bird.

He does have one friend: Derek.

And then there’s Dr. Bird. His imaginary therapist, who is a large pigeon.

Dr. Bird, Derek, Beth, Jorie — it’s not a lot of people, especially since one is imaginary, one is real but will be graduating soon, one doesn’t know he exists, another is missing. But it’s a start.

The Good: Oh, all the layers of plot that connect!

There is the mystery of why Jorie was expelled from high school. For James to figure out the mystery, he must learn more about Jorie. You’d think, with just one year difference between them, that he’d know his sister. And he thought he did. When Beth asks him about Jorie’s poetry, James discovers his sister wrote for the literary magazine and this starts James finding out more about his sister. To do that, James has to take a closer look at himself and his family.

The reader knows that if James calls his parents the Brute and the Banshee, his home life is not simple and happy. Whether the labels are that of an angry teen, or deserved, is revealed slowly. James doesn’t even quite realize, or acknowledge, the full dynamics of his family. James — like other teens — is recognizing the way his family works and his own role in it. Yes, they are deserving of the labels Brute and Banshee — but enough is shown of their own pasts to show how they ended up the way they are. And that they aren’t just their label.

What James wants is to get his sister back. This forces him into action, with one thing leading to another. His wanting to learn more about his sister’s poetry leads him to being involved with the literary magazine, using his own poetry and photographs. He wants to see a therapist, recognizing his own anxiety and depression needs more than in imaginary pigeon (even if Dr. Bird’s advice is sometimes good), but to do so needs a job, so starts working at a pizza place with Derek.

So one step in James’s life leads to more steps, that both open up his world but also result in James own personal growth, including the steps he takes for his own depression. And that those steps are more than “make friends, get out of your house, find a hobby” (all things that James does in fact end up doing) — they are meeting with a therapist (a real one) and using that.

This is a Favorite Book Read in 2014 — because of James and Jorie. And the yawps. And Roskos’s writing. And the way that therapy is shown, not as “the” answer, but as part of James’s life.

Other reviews: Stacked; Beth Reads; Miss Literati; Good Books, Good Wine; Author Interview at SLJ.

 

Review: The Nazi Hunters

The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb. Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. 2013. Library copy. YALSA Nonfiction Award Shortlist.

It’s About: In 1960, a group of Israeli spies and operatives captured the Nazi fugitive, Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann had been in charge of “Jewish affairs,” the head of operations for the Final Solution. In the chaos of the aftermath of World War II, he had disappeared.

The Nazi Hunters traces the rumors of Eichmann being in Argentina; the steps to investigate whether the old man living in a small house is, indeed, the man responsible for the death of millions of men, women, and children. And, then, what was involved in Israel sending in a team to capture Eichmann and get him back to Israel for a trial.

The Plot: The Nazi Hunters tells two complicated stories, both with a lot of characters. (A list of characters at the front of the book helps the reader keep track.) One is the story of Eichmann, what he did, his escape to Argentina, how his family joins him. It’s the story of the Final Solution, and includes the stories of survivors.

The other is the story of discovering Eichmann and what happens then. It includes Nazi Hunters like Simon Wiesenthal, and ordinary people like the young woman in Argentina who brings a boyfriend home only to realize it’s the son of Eichmann. It’s the story of the various Israelis involved in the mission. And, it’s a story that has required some secrecy because of how dangerous it was. Eichmann was in Argentina in part because it was known to be favorable to Nazis; people were risking their lives in helping to capture them. It’s a fascinating, intense story of spies, many who survived the Holocaust and lost loved ones.

It’s also the story of civilians, people just doing the right thing. Sylvia Hermann, for example, the young woman who brought Nick Eichmann to meet her parents in 1956. Nick was born Klaus Eichmann, and was about 20 at the time. He’d been nine when the war ended; lived through his father’s disappearance, to then be reunited with him in the 1950s. To get an idea of how safe it was in Argentina: while Eichmann himself was living under an assumed name, his three oldest sons were using “Eichmann.” Nick boasted that his father had been a high ranking official; he said the Germans should have “finished the job.” Sylvia’s father was half-Jewish, something kept secret because of the continuing prejudices in Argentina. When father and daughter later realized that Nick’s father was Adolf Eichmann, they wrote to a German prosecutor. This was a crucial beginning to the search and capture of Eichmann.

Part of what The Nazi Hunters does is explain just why capturing and trying Eichmann is so important. Revenge and vengeance, even, some would argue, justice, would be served by an assassination. It would also, arguably, be safer for international relations — what Israel was doing was going into another country, kidnapping someone, and then spiriting them out of the country. Doing that was dangerous, as was the risks of what would happen later.

The government of Israel wanted something public. They wanted to remind the world what had happened. “Bringing the fugitive to justice and airing his crimes in a public trial would remind the world of the Nazi atrocities, and the need to remain vigilant against any groups that aimed to repeat them.” This also gives the reason why The Nazi Hunters is a needed book: it’s been over fifty years since Eichmann was tried and executed, but hate groups remain; people deny the Holocaust happened; and other atrocities take place. The Nazi Hunters is both a powerful tale, and a reminder, but it also serves to show: justice will not be denied.

Other reviews: Nerdy Book Club; The Children’s War; The Book Smugglers. 

 

 

Review: The President Has Been Shot

The President Has Been Shot! The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson. Scholastic. 2013. YALSA Nonfiction Award Shortlist.

It’s About: The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. 

The Good: The past November — the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK — I watched a lot of specials and documentaries about Kennedy, his life, his presidency, his death, the assassination, the aftermath.

While “where were you when Kennedy was shot” is a defining question for the generation before mine, a moment of cultural unity, a loss of innocence.

For the rest of us, it’s a story. A story known from fragments, here and there: a short home video; a handful of photographs; names and moments, recognized before they were understood or comprehended.

Swanson tells the story of Kennedy; and I’m reminded of why it is I like young adult fiction. Because it can get to the point and explain things so succinctly. There are books written just about the Bay of Pigs: Swanson explains it in a handful of pages. It’s all you need, really; and if the reader wants more, they can pursue that independently.

Swanson takes the reader through the days of Kennedy’s assassination, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, the murder of Oswald, Kennedy’s funeral. And it shows just why, well, why this is a fascinating subject. Swanson shows the Kennedy mystique: the looks, the family, the charm, and it’s that mystique that continues to attract attention. In this one volume, a reader can find out about Kennedy’s family, see him with his young children — children so young that it made Kennedy himself seem younger than his 46 years.

And then the surprise and the horror of Oswald killing Kennedy, and the aftermath. Swanson gives enough details to satisfy a curiosity — why is this so important, still, that any show set in the past has to have a JFK episode? Why are we shown how fake people react to a real death? And, along, the way, the reader moves from curious to engaged, to caring about the young widow in her bloodstained clothes.

Also: I loved all the photographs, maps, charts, and other material to help show the people and places.

Other reviews: Bookends; Literacious; Abby the Librarian.

 

 

Review: Belle Epoque

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross. Delacorte Press, Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Morris shortlist.

The Plot: Paris, France. 1888/1889. Maud Pichon, 16, had big dreams when she ran away from her small village in Brittany and an arranged marriage.

Her dreams have changed to one thing: survival. The money she took from her father is almost gone, the rent in due in the small garret room she found, and she needs a job.

She answers an ad: “young women wanted for undemanding work. Propriety guaranteed.” She is shocked to discover that the Durandeau Agency provides a special type of woman to a special client: a repoussoir.

Plain and ugly women. To be a companion. To sit next to someone, and in their ugliness make someone look prettier than they otherwise would appear.

Maud flees: insulted that she is viewed as perfect for the job. And all her own fears and insecurities are stirred up, as she hears all her flaws described. She tries another job, but in the end, she has no choice. She returns.

Maud’s first assignment: a Countess buys Maud’s time for the countess’s daughter, to be around for the whole season, to make the daughter, Isabelle, more desirable and more marriageable. There’s a catch: Isabelle must not know anything about it. And Maud is to report everything back to her mother, reveal every confidence, so that her mother can manipulate the best marriage possible.

Maud must practice deception upon deception: pretending to belong to society. Pretending to be Isabelle’s friend. Pretending not to want more, not to be more, than the ugly friend.

The Good: A fascinating look at late nineteenth century Paris. “Beauty” is supposed to be so important that people hire someone plain to sit next to them in a cafe, at a dinner, at the opera. Yet it’s also a time with changing standards of what beauty is, as shown by the building of the Eiffel Tower. It’s different, it’s unique, and we, the reader, know that one day it will become synonymous with Paris, that it will be viewed as beautiful and elegant, but in Maud’s time? Not so much.

Maud is doing her best to make her own way. Back home, she worked in her father’s store, so she has little or no formal education. Her shop skills, without a reference, cannot get her a job. The position she does get, in a laundry, is tough and demanding and hardly pays. Being a repoussoir is physically easier and pays better. She makes friends with some of the other women. The problem is she also starts to make friends with Isabelle. Isabelle, it turns out, is someone who could care less about the season or marriage; she likes learning and her dream is to attend the Sorbonne. Maud pretends to Isabelle’s mother that Isabelle has good prospects, doesn’t tell about Isabelle’s dreams, but Maud knows that she can only play that game for so long.

Being the ugly, plain friend is draining. It does something to a person. To always, always, be the lesser one: Maud doesn’t really belong at any of the fancy affairs she goes to; she doesn’t have money or connections; and, of course, she doesn’t even have the looks. Even her personality must be muted and downplayed, used to flatter and highlight the person who hired her.

And here is where Maud’s age matters. For any repoussoir this would be difficult. For a teenage girl, it’s almost impossible. It’s not just having your worst fears about your appearance confirmed, though part of it is that. It’s also that Maud is at a time in her life where she is trying to figure out herself: enjoying Paris, wondering where life will take her, figuring out what she wants, and, yes, falling for a young man. How can she do all that while she is being told to be second? Less than?

A quick aside about the young man: yes, there is a bit of a romance, as well as some feelings about some of the eligible men courting Isabelle. I mean, Maud is having fancy parties and dinners and meeting young men who are handsome and rich. Of course there will be feels. But it’s a bit secondary to the main story: the story of Maud discovering herself.

All too often, historical fiction is about the “fancy” things, so, the things that the rich and well to do have. It is about the options that those people have. Isabelle, then — the daughter of wealthy parents who years only for an education — would be the main character, so that the parties and events and dresses could be described but you’d also have a “good” main character, one who values education over appearance and strives for independence.

Instead, there is Maud. Maud, who ran away and finds that life in Paris, while magical, is also about being hungry and desperate when you’re poor without connections. It’s about having to sit silently while someone describes the flaws of face and figure. Despite the cover image, this is not about someone who is beautiful. When she gets to wear pretty clothes, they are not truly hers: they are part of the person she has to pretend to be. She is only just now learning about the world of art and music, and Isabelle introduces her to photography. Maud discovers things and people to care about, and has to decide whether her job is more important than her integrity and her relationships with others. And she has to do so while wondering how to pay rent and buy food. Because she already has independence, her struggle is how to maintain it.

Other reviews: Slatebreakers; The Book Smugglers; YA Romantics.