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.






Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. Amulet Books. 2013. Library copy. Morris Shortlist.

The Plot: 1918. Mary Shelley Black, 16, has fled Portland, Oregon following her father’s arrest for treason. She is going to stay with her aunt, Eva, in San Diego.

San Diego has changed since the last time she was there, months ago, visiting her aunt and seeing her best friend since childhood, Stephen Embers.

The Spanish Influenza has almost shut down the city. People are in constant fear. And Stephen is gone — even though barely 18, he has volunteered for the army and is fighting in Europe. His regular letters stopped a few weeks ago.

Mary Shelley wants to see Stephen’s mother and older brother, Julius, to find out more about Stephen. The problem is, Stephen and his older half-brother have never gotten along. The last in a long line of disagreements had to do with photography. Stephen takes artistic pictures of nature.

Julius is a spirit photographer, capturing the ghosts of the deceased in photographs of loved ones.

Stephen, disgusted with the scam, joined the Army. Julius spread lies about Stephen taking advantage of Mary Shelley.

The last person Mary Shelley wants to see is Julius. But she will, if it means finding out more about Stephen.

The GoodThe nice thing about reading something after it’s been put on a shortlist is being able to read it through the lens of, why this book?

The setting of In the Shadow of Blackbirds is 1918 San Diego: a city in fear of flu, in fear of war. People with masks, afraid of the flu, doing anything to protect themselves. I loved the details, such as the conviction that onions will keep the flu away. How one moment a person is fine, the next they are dying. Even the details of the dying.

I wish there were more books set during World War I. For various reasons, it seems that it’s an overlooked time period in the USA. In the Shadow of Blackbirds looks at the war from the view of life on the homefront. The anti-German bias. The men, ruined in body and spirit, who returned from the battlefields. How people treated shell shock. The propaganda. And the way that any dissent was treated.

Spirit photography is part of that homefront: between the deaths from the war and the deaths from the flu, people are desperate and look for any comfort. To have lost a loved one, then given proof in the form of a photograph that they are still there? It’s a gift.

A gift that Julius gives to people, for a price. A gift that both Stephen and Mary Shelley are skeptical about. Stephen, because he believes that Julius is mistreating the art of photography. Mary Shelley, because she is a scientist that doesn’t believe in ghosts. In the Shadow of Blackbirds, details are given about the tricks and inventions people use to fake spiritual photography and seances; and how people catch those faking.

It also gives the possibility of ghosts being true. Mary Shelley, scientist, always pragmatic, almost dies. After, she sees and senses things differently. One of those things — well, a ghost. Or, at least, one ghost. Believing in spirits doesn’t mean that she also believes, suddenly, in spirit photography or seances. In some ways, it makes her more skeptical. At this point, In the Shadow of Blackbirds also turns into a mystery, as Mary Shelley begins to investigate the death of the ghost. (Look at me, being all careful about that identity of the ghost!)

Mary Shelley is an interesting character: she’s the daughter of a female physician, who died shortly after giving birth to her. Her father’s been arrested for treason, but it’s more that he’s an an anti-war pacifist than someone agitating for the downfall of his country. She loves science, and is the type of person who, when she takes something apart and then puts it back together, it works better than it did before.

And Aunt Eva! I felt so much sympathy for Eva, only 26. What she wants is what a typical woman of that time wants: a home, a husband, children. She has no children; her husband died young; and she’s working endless hours in a factory. She has a home where she has to hide anything with German connections, even though — as she explains — the family is Swiss. And while she has a home to offer Eva, she’s not well off — they cannot afford electricity. Eva even has had to cut her hair short, because of her work in the factory. Eva wants a happy ending that involves a man and children; instead, she’s working and taking care of a stubborn teenager.

My last thought, which really has nothing to do with the Morris criteria. The cover! I LOVE when a publisher doesn’t use stock photos. The cover replicates a photograph taken of Mary Shelley. More information about the cover design — including the care taken with the font — is at The Lucky 13s blog, in the post Cover Scoop.

Other links and reviews: the website of In the Shadow of Blackbirds has some great extras; Jen Robinson’s Book PageVikki Vansickle; My Not So Real Life.


Review: The Kingdom Of Little Wounds

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: 1572. The royal city of Skyggehavn in Scandinavia. The stories of royalty, nobility, and servants are woven together, creating a tapestry of a time, a place, and a crisis.

King Christian V and his French wife, Isabel, have produced over a half dozen children, securing the future of the country. The eldest, twelve year old Princess Sophia, is being married to Duke Magnus of Sweden, promising peace.

It sounds just like a fairy tale!

Except this is no fairy tale. The children are all sickly. Sophie dies in her marriage bed. Isabel, pregnant again, seems to be going mad. Christian is ill. And while the voices of the royals occasionally join in the telling, the true story of The Kingdom of Little Wounds is about two teenagers on the edges of the royal story, a servant, Ava Bingen, and a slave, Midi Sorte.

The Good: I picked this up because I saw it being discussed at Someday My Printz Will Come, and was intrigued.

The Kingdom of Little Woods is not a quick read. It’s a dense, complicated book that plunges the reader into the story, into 1572, and the world of Skyggehaven. Isabel’s story, her marriage and children and unborn child, are important, yes, but — unlike many a fairy tale about a princess — the two strongest voices, the two stories most important to the reader, are those of Ava and Midi. Isabel’s story matters because of how it affects Ava and Midi.

Ava is one of the needlewoman for Queen Isabel; she is the youngest, the newest, the most insignificant, but she has dreams of something more. Ava wants to make up for the disgrace she brought upon her family, when she was abandoned by her fiance and miscarried on the church steps. Instead of working her way up the rank of royal servants, a mistake means that she moves downward and finds herself embroiled in the politics of the country, asked to spy by Nicolas Bullen on the queen and the children.

Nicolas Bullen of Bon is a steward of the Queen’s household with great ambitions. He will use anyone, and anything, including a disgraced servant, to get what we wants; for those below him, he manipulates, threatens, and uses physical and sexual abuse to get his way. For those above, he manipulates, flatters, flirts.

Midi Sorte was kidnapped from Africa as a child, sold and given away. Her tongue was cut, silencing her voice but not her thoughts and words. Her love, the court historian Arthur, has taught her read. She watches and observes. As someone with so little power, she takes what she can.

Midi and Ava do not become friends; they are people who know each other. Who see each other as vague threats. That only increases when Arthur starts paying attention to Ava. Neither Midi nor Ava have many options or power. They are constrained by being female, by being a slave, by being a servant with no connections, by being poor. Each in her own way struggles against her place in the world, and sometimes, because of that, they do things that aren’t nice. Or kind. But, theirs is not a world that has been nice or kind to them.

Personally? I loved The Kingdom of Little Wounds. I loved the layered storytelling with few answers. I loved the complexity of Ava and Midi, and even of Isabel. I liked the historical accuracy and truthfulness: the casual cruelty, the concerns of court life, the fears. I like how Ava and Midi try to create their own lives within the constraints of their time and society. One of the questions raised over at Someday My Printz Will Come was whether this is, indeed, a young adult book; aren’t Midi and Ava considered adults in their world? Not really; while both may be working, neither is free to pursue their own interests or desires. Like some teens today, they have to answer to others, they have to follow the paths other decide, they make poor choices, they take anger and frustration out on the wrong people, their actions have unintended consequences.

The author has described her book as “a fairy tale about syphilis.” Syphilis, also called the French Fire and the Italian Fire, is running through the story as a threat. Nicolas takes a rather unique step in protecting himself from the Italian Fire. Sex and sexual relationships is treated both matter of factly (an upperclass woman entertaining a lover in front of a servant, because servants are invisible) and also spoken about as a sin. Being a sin doesn’t stop someone like Nicolas from forcing and blackmailing Ava and Midi, and neither have any recourse to his actions.

The court politics, loyalties, and actions are not always clear, because — much like history — The Kingdom of Little Wounds offers various perspectives. No one person has all knowledge. Some things are left unclear and unknown. Ava and Midi suffer small gains and large set backs, managing to do what they can while living under the power of others. For most of the book Ava and Midi are reacting, characters on another’s chessboard. As the final chapters approach, that changes. Ava and Midi take central stage, taking control of their own narratives.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds is, as I mentioned, a demanding read. It isn’t short and easy, there are many people speaking, and the time and place (sixteenth century Scandinavia) is unfamiliar. Confession: at first I thought this was an entirely made up fantasy world, due to my unfamiliarity with the time and place. Demanding, yes; but ultimately rewarding, by becoming immersed in the world of Ava and Midi.

A second confession: I read this as I was watching Reign, the CW’s series about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots while she is a teenager at the French court. Reign is a fun TV show to watch, but it’s so full of historical inaccuracy that one has to just sit back and enjoy the ride. If historical accuracy is what you want? Then The Kingdom of Little Wounds is the perfect antidote for Reign. (And, it’s also interesting to read a book that is so about the impact of syphilis while watching a TV show that has quite the bit of bed hopping without any worrying about it, even though they are both in the same time period, give or take 20 years. And, to read a book about the hard work and overlooked lives of the servants while watching a show all about the pretty, rich and privileged.)

End result for me? Yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Locker Combinations with Jill Ratzan at BookPage; Librarian of Snark; Monkey Poop; GenreFluent; Miss Literati.

Review: A Spark Unseen

A Spark Unseen by Sharon Cameron. Sequel to The Dark Unwinding. Scholastic. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: The 1850s. England. Katharine Tulman awakes to find someone trying to break into her room. She prevents the kidnapping of her Uncle Tully, but more threats to his safety and peace of mind come. What can she do?

She realizes has to leave the haven of Stranwyne Keep, her first real home. She has to leave England.

Among the property Katharine has inherited is a house in Paris. Paris, which also happens to be the last place that Lane Moreau was known to be.

Is anything ever that easy? Of course not. Katharine is still caught between the politics of two countries, England and France. She’s not sure who she can trust. Can she find Lane and keep those she loves safe?

The Good: As a quick recap of The Dark Unwinding: orphaned Katharine had been raised by her rather mean and nasty aunt. Katharine goes to her Uncle Tully’s at the request of her aunt, to assist in getting Tully committed; instead, Katharine finds a home and acceptance with Tully, his home, his workers, and even finds love with Lane. Tully acts like a child but is a genius inventor, spending most of his time making elaborate toys. (It’s never mentioned, but it sounds like Tully is somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Both the French and English government wants to misuse Uncle Tully’s inventions to create weapons of war. By the end, it turns out Katharine is the true heir; she can take care of Uncle Tully and escape her aunt; and someone important to her dies in the struggle for Tully’s inventions. (The death so shocked me I still half-believe it didn’t really happen.)

Given those deaths, Katharine’s fears for Uncle Tully and others around her are well founded. It’s also important to note how alone Katharine had been before she met Tully, Lane and the others in her uncle’s household. She is driven to keep those close to her safe, because she isn’t use to having family and friends she loves.

Oh, a quick observation about Uncle Tully’s inventions. I’ve heard these books described as Steam Punk. Given the nature of Uncle Tully’s inventions, I’d say Electric Punk or Mechanical Punk makes more sense. I’m no expert, but they are based on real inventions of the time period just “amped up” a bit.

When Katharine arrives in Paris, there are other English people there, fleeing the cholera in England. In fact, her new next door neighbors are one such English family. The good news? It’s not anyone she knows. The bad news? One of their guests is Mrs. Hardcastle, a good friend of Katharine’s aunt. Yes, the same aunt who made her life so miserable. Mrs. Hardcastle and the neighbors actually adds a bit of humor to this adventure, because she is a bit of a nosy busybody and the whole family has no clue about what is “really” going on.

What is “really” going on? Katharine wants to find Lane, even though she’s been told he is dead. Katharine arrives in Paris with only two allies, her lawyer, Mr. Babcock, and her maid, Mary. She does find someone to help her, another friend of her next door neighbor, Mr. Marchand. While it would sound, at first, that finding a missing man is hardly an adventure, keep in mind that Lane was in Paris as an English spy, working against Napoleon III. Remember how the English government hasn’t been exactly nice to Katharine and her uncle. Whether it’s Katharine discovering the truth of Lane’s death, or Katharine finding Lane alive, Katharine is not safe.

What else to add? There’s a few threads and a bunch of characters going on, with the politics and spying, and Katharine never being quite sure who to trust yet having to work with people to find Lane. The house in Paris has a housekeeper, and another bit of fun (for me) and stress (for Katharine) is that the housekeeper and her family refuse to leave the house, no matter what Katharine says. Is the housekeeper a real threat, or just an annoying woman who refuses to listen to someone as young as Katharine? And, of course, there is also all the history, both “big” (we meet Napoleon III and learn a bit more about him!) and “small” (what was a Channel crossing like in the 1850s?)

I loved  how it all comes together at the end, almost like a puzzle box being put together to form one whole. Even what appears to be coincidence is not, it’s just a bigger picture than Katharine had realized.

Other reviews: Sarcasm and Lemons; Library of a Book Witch; Through the Looking Glass (this has some fun spoilers that are best read after reading A Spark Unseen).



Review: Death Comes To Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. Random House. 2011. Personal copy. Vacation reads — a non-teen book for your reading pleasure over the holiday weekend.

The Plot: A murder mystery set several years after the events of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The murder takes place at the Darcy estate, and it’s up to Darcy and assorted friends and family to solve it.

The Good: I have to be honest: I was so looking forward to this book, and was disappointed.

One of the reasons I love fanfiction is because it does things like this: it asks, what if Elizabeth and Darcy had to solve a mystery? And bonus: written by P.D. James! Immediately in my head there were images of Elizabeth and Darcy being an Austen inspired Nick and Nora, or Booth and Bones, or, well, you get the picture.

What happened? Death Comes to Pemberley became the classic case of not being the book I wanted it to be. And, unfortunately for the book, I could not get to the point to read it as the book that it was.

The main characters were not the way I imagined them. After the initial fun of seeing just where James put them in life, I didn’t much care for them. They seemed off, from my memory and my hopes for them. Where Colonel Fitzwilliam ended up disappointed me to the extent I didn’t find it believable. Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t get enough time together; I was in Darcy’s head too much, Elizabeth’s too little. Darcy — well, it seemed like Darcy was patting himself on the back a bit too much for marrying down in marrying Elizabeth.

The historical aspects of the novel were spot on. James wrote in the style of the novel, which while it made sense, didn’t make an easy read. Elizabeth and Darcy have a couple of children, and I liked how that was handled. The murder, or, rather, the death, involves Wickham (of course, because WICKHAM) and I found this version of Wickham perplexing. Or, rather, Darcy and others view of Wickham. Despite Wickhams’ track record, there was a “well of course Wickham cannot be a murderer because he’s not that type of person.” Told over and over. To be fair, I think Darcy’s attitude towards Wickham was time period appropriate. But just because people then had a certain view and prejudice about people doesn’t mean they were right.

While I didn’t like certain aspects of Death Comes to Pemberley, I did like the exploration of criminal law at the time. It was fascinating, especially to this former lawyer. For me, Death Comes to Pemberley worked better as a historical fiction novel about the criminal justice system of the time than as a mystery.

So, why include this if I was disappointed? Well, not all readers were. And I wanted to show that I don’t love everything I read. And you may feel differently. And, because, well, despite not loving the book I’m still intrigued enough to be looking forward to the BBC/PBS miniseries based on the book.

Did you read Death Comes to Pemberley? Am I being too tough on it?

Other reviews: The New York Times; AustenProse; SonderBooks.

Review: Hideous Love

Hideous Love: The Story of the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Stephanie Hemphill. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: The story of Mary Godwin Shelley, the woman who wrote Frankenstein.

The Good: I have always loved the story of Mary Shelley. To be honest, more than I love her creature, Frankenstein.

I’m not sure what was the name of the book I read about her; I don’t even remember whether it was fiction or non-fiction. I do remember how awful her stepmother was. And the romance of meeting and falling in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and running away with him even though she was only sixteen and he was married. And all the babies, and all the babies save one dying. The drama of it all!

Hideous Love, in verse form, tells that story. Of Mary wanting her father’s approval. Of Mary’s intense relationship with Shelley. Of their journey together, and their ultimate marriage once his first wife had died. Of the origins of Frankenstein.

I’m hardly an expert on Mary, Shelley, or their time, but I do know the generalities. Who Byron was, for example, and his relationship with Mary’s stepsister.

Hideous Love explains who the various people are, including Mary’s own family tree made up of various half and step siblings, as well as the various poets, philosophers, artists and others Mary encounter. It also explains how Mary’s father’s ideas about marriage and “free love” led Mary to think her father would be much more accepting of her relationship than he was.

My favorite part is in the initial love affair between Mary and Shelley. What is more difficult is the “after” part — Mary and Shelley getting older. Given the philosophy of “free love,” well, how free was their love? Hemphill addresses but does not answer some of those questions that really have no answer, namely, who else Shelley had a physical relationship with while he was with Mary.

Hideous Love brilliantly illustrates Mary’s emotional reality. Her hopes, her fears, what drives her, and how that changes and doesn’t change over time.

Here, some of my favorite bits:

“I am happier now

than ever I have been

more joyous

than when I am reading

my favorite book.

And then this, when talking about her stepsister and her fears about her stepsister and Shelley:

“Her design may have been

larger than that.

I notice when she bats

her lashes at Shelley

as though she holidays

with him alone.

I do not believe I have ever

wanted to throw

anyone out of a carriage more.”

Are Mary’s fears realistic? Or is it, having run away with a married man, that she doesn’t trust him? Is her stepsister really interested in Shelley? Or is her stepsister just lonely?

Shelley is always seen through Mary’s eyes. And here is more of a mystery — and again, a reason I want to read more about him — because I couldn’t quite get a handle on him. Oh, yes, Mary loves him. And he loves her. But at times I didn’t quite like Shelley. There was an arrogance about him, and a sense of entitlement almost, that made me love him less than Mary does. Was he really that careless about Mary’s feelings? Or, rather, that careless about others in general? But, then again — this is firmly Mary’s story. Not Shelley’s. So is this just how Mary began to see Shelley, when she was insecure? Or as she grew older and less enchanted?

Hideous Love is an emotional exploration rather than factual biography, so it doesn’t deeply delve into certain areas of Mary’s life and times. While there is enough shared for the reader new to Mary to understand what is going on, I think it’s best read by someone who already has some knowledge of Mary. Even for those who do know the basics, like myself, there were some parts I wanted to know more about. Hideous Love has some great back matter, with more information on Mary, her writings, and short information on the people in the book. For myself, I still wanted to know more about the lack of money, and borrowing, and how Mary and Shelley did and didn’t make ends meet. Libraries and schools who have Hideous Love should be prepared with more traditional biographies for readers who, like me, want more. And let me say — a book that wants you wanting more? That’s not a bad thing.

Other reviews: Teenreads; Librarian of Snark; Proud Book Nerd; Never Ending Stories.


Review: Born of Illusion

Born of Illusion by Teri Brown. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Walking down the street of 1920s New York City, Anna Van Housen looks like any other proper sixteen year old young lady.

It’s taken a lot for Anna and her mother, Marguerite, to get here. Years on the road, travelling, from performance to performance, sometimes one step ahead of the law.

Marguerite is a mentalist and a medium; Anna is an illusionist, a magician who opens for her mother’s act. Thanks to a new manager, they are in New York City, living in a good neighborhood, holding seances for rich and important people. Technically, yes, it’s against the law.

Why? Well, because it’s all a fake. A con. Tricks and slights of the hand, just like Anna’s magic tricks. It’s all about the show, and part of the show the identity of Anna’s father: Harry Houdini. A “secret” Marguerite shares when it’s to their advantage.

Is Houdini really her father? Anna longs to know the truth. Like him, she loves planning and performing magic tricks. She wishes that her mother would give her a bigger role in their show. Anna also has a secret: unlike her mother, Anna really is a psychic. She can’t control it and she’s learned to hide it, but she can see the future. She can talk to the dead. She wonders if she gets this talent from her father. She wonders if Houdini’s well known battles in exposing fake seances is because he knows that sometimes, it’s real.

Living in one place means that Anna has the chance to make friends. They include a relative of the downstairs’ neighbor. Colin Emerson “Cole” Archer III is about her age, and it turns out he has his own secrets. Owen Winchester is a respectable young man who likes Anna and also likes magic. Cynthia, the young wife of a rich man, enjoys the fun of seances. From both Cynthia and Cole, Anna learns that there may be others like her, a whole secret society. But, who can be trusted? Is the society there to help people with her talents, or to use them? And are Anna and her mother in danger because of those gifts?

Anna is torn: between keeping her ability secret and learning how to control it. As her visions become more personal, more dangerous, she wonders what to do next.

The Good: New York City in the 1920s comes alive, and Anna is an interesting person to talk about it. Because of her upbringing, she has a level of independence and a level of maturity that other sixteen-year-olds woudn’t have. She is often out and about on her own.

Anna loves that they are in one place, that they have a real apartment, a real home. She doesn’t love how they have it. Oh, she likes performing — she loves performing, actually, and wants to do more. She doesn’t love the fake seances, taking advantage of grieving people. She realizes this is a bit of a conflict, in that she wants the stability of living in one place, and making friends, but she loves doing something that requires performing on stage and travelling from town to town. I liked the details about just how the seances were faked, as well as some of the tricks behind Anna’s illusions.

And that secret society . . . .  It’s the Society for Psychical Research. It would be too tidy if the Society swept in and answered all of Anna’s questions. It does not. Anna tries to get more information, but it’s based in England so it’s hard to find things out. And who can she trust, really? That, really, is the mystery: are her visions real? What is the real danger?

Marguerite and Anna have an interesting dynamic. It’s just as much partners as mother/daughter; Anna is sometimes the one taking care of Marguerite. In the past, she has sometimes rescued Marguerite following a run-in with the local law. Marguerite isn’t even Marguerite. She was born Magali Moshe. Her name is as much a bit of show business as anything else about her. And what, exactly, is the story with Houdini?

Last point: Anna gets some answers about the Society, but not all. According to the publisher’s website, this is the first in a series about the Society, which is based on a real life organization. Born of Illusion works as a standalone; it’s a complete story, with an ending, even though it’s clear that there is more to learn about the Society and that Anna herself may have more adventures. The setting reminded me of The Diviners; and fans of that book, who are waiting for the sequel, will enjoy Born of Illusion.

Other reviews: Bookish Notions; Miss Print; A Reader of Fictions; Read Breathe Relax.

Review: A Moment Comes

A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2013.

The Plot: India. June, 1947. India will soon have independence; part of the process includes dividing the country into two parts, based on religion.

A Moment Comes is about three teenagers: Tariq, a young Muslim who wants to study in Oxford. Anupreet, a young Sikh woman who has already been touched by violence. Margaret, daughter of one of the Englishmen who is mapping the line between India and Pakistan.

Many things divide these three teenagers: religion, race, privilege, economics. What will they do when the moment comes to test who they are? To know what the “right” thing is?

The Good: A Moment Comes uses three separate voices to look at the partition of India and Pakistan.

Tariq doesn’t want to be involved; he just wants to escape to Oxford. The unlikeliness of this happening gradually becomes apparent. It’s not that Tariq doesn’t have the ambition. It’s that his family is, well, average, with neither money nor connections. He takes a job with Margaret’s father, in hopes that will somehow help him get to England. However, the violence is something he cannot escape, especially since some of his school mates are very involved.

Anupreet has already been touched by the escalating religious violence in her country (soon to be two countries). Her face is scarred. Her family is afraid to let her out alone. In truth, as time passes, it’s not even safe for her to be accompanied by her brother. Working in the household of Margaret’s family is a way for her to escape the prison and sadness of her home. As a Sikh, Anupreet’s experience offers a counterpart to Tariq’s. Both teens, and their families, suffer from what is going on.

And then there is Margaret, the outsider. She was involved in a bit of a scandal back home, which explains why she is now in India with her parents. Margaret offers the outsider view, to complement the two insider views of Tariq and Anu. Part of what I appreciated about A Moment Comes is how clearly the privilege of Margaret and her parents is shown, and yet at the same time I could sympathize with Margaret. I could both cringe at her ignorance or privilege, and feel for her own sense of displacement and loneliness.

Another thing I really liked about A Moment Comes? What it did not do. Tariq and Anu are working for Margaret’s family, and that divide is always present, just as the divide between Sikh and Muslim is there. Margaret may have a crush on the handsome Tariq, and be jealous of the beautiful Anu, but it’s not “that type” of book. Sorry to be a bit “spoilery,” but Tariq’s concern is getting into Oxford. While he may think Anu pretty, isn’t being nice to Margaret a better way to achieve his goals? But then — it’s not that type of book. It’s much more subtle, and not a soap opera. Rather, it’s three distinct people whose lives overlap but the don’t really intertwine until the end.

And, when they do intertwine — and this is at the end — it’s as much about putting aside individual ego for what is best for others. It’s about figuring out the right thing to do when there is no one “right” thing.

One more thing: by concentrating on the handful of months leading up to the partition, after violence has already started (and the level of violence stunned me), A Moment Comes is focused. This is not about why partition, because partition is coming. It’s a fact that Anu and Tariq and their friends and families must live with. The violence has already started, so this is also not a book about why that is happening. Instead, as with partition, it’s a fact that had to be lived with.

Other reviews: Bookworm 1858; Rich in Color; McNally Jackson Kids.

Review: Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. Hyperion. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to Code Name Verity.

The Plot: It’s summer of 1944 and Rose Moyer Justice is in England, a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary.

She’s a pilot, and she’s an American, and she’s only 18, but she’s in the ATA because she’s been flying since she was 12 and her Uncle Roger, “high up in the Royal Engineers,” helped get her a place.

Rose thinks she’s seen the horrors of war. Her friend Celia Forester’s plan crashed, and she grieves. Her other friend Maddy has a war time wedding. Then there are the bombings and the destruction and the fear.

Thanks to Uncle Roger, Rose is flying in France, ferrying a plane back to England. That is when Rose is forced down by the Luftwaffe, captured by the Nazis, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

Rose is about to discover what real horror is.

The Good: First things first: you don’t have to have read Code Name Verity to read Rose Under Fire. Rose’s friend Maddy is the Maddy from Code Name Verity, and a couple of other people appear, but in terms of plot, there is no connection. Since Rose Under Fire takes place after Code Name Verity, readers will be happy to see Maddy and find out how she’s doing, but the non-Code Name Verity reader won’t be confused.

Rose Under Fire is primarily told by Rose herself. First, in some journal entries from the summer of 1944. Then, there is a handful of correspondence from others that show that Rose is missing, presumed dead. Next, entries beginning in April 1945, with Rose in Paris, having escaped Ravensbruck. The jacket copy tells that Rose is sent to Ravensbruck – no spoiler there – and Rose Under Fire shows how Rose ended up in the concentration camp, what happened to her there, how she survived — and what she does to put her life together after.

Rose is eighteen, young, and prisoned in a place where she doesn’t even really know the language. She heard rumors about Nazi atrocities and dismissed them as propaganda. And, as she puts it, “I hadn’t seen evil. Or, if I had, I didn’t recognize it.” Another thing to know about Rose, in addition to being young, and an American. She gets angry. “I wasn’t upset. I was angry, as mad as I was about everything else.” She also loves poetry and writes some herself. Probably, the last important thing to know about Rose and how she survives: she’s lucky.

Rose is lucky, because she makes friends and connections that will help her survive. First is Elodie, a member of the French Resistance. Later, after Rose is brutally beaten, the “Rabbits” — the Polish women subjected to Nazi “medical” experimentation — befriend her. The reason? To learn English. To learn the poetry she recites. One, Roza, is even younger than Rose. Then there is Irina, a pilot in the Soviet Army, who gets paired up with Rose during a work detail because both are tall.

The Rabbits. I had been aware, in a vague words on paper way, of the Nazi medical experiments. When Rose gets to Ravensbruck, the experiments are over and scarred, mutilated women remain. They live, because in an odd way the current commander is afraid to kill them. It is after D-Day, and while the war in Europe is bloody and not yet over there is a vague fear that they may lose and will have to answer for their crimes. I say vague, because brutality and killings do continue.

Elodie, Roza, Irina. It is because of them that Rose lives. Rose doesn’t just take: no, she also gives, and there are people who live because of Rose’s own actions. When I talk about the friendships; or how other prisoners also tried to help the Rabbits, because of just how badly they were treated; I don’t want to make it sound the wrong way. Like it’s all selflessness and jolly good comradery. No. There is also harshness and cruelty, blood and death, mud and hunger, fear and desperation. For Rose and the others there are two types of survival: physical survival and mental survival. What does it mean, to be in a place like Ravensbruck?

What does it mean, to survive Ravensbruck? To live, after?

I don’t want to give too much away, because while this doesn’t have the type of twists and turns like Code Name Verity, I think that certain plot points are best discovered by the reader than told in a review.

I will say this: Rose Under Fire is as much about the time after Rose’s imprisonment as it is about the imprisonment itself. The final third of the story takes place in 1946 and is called Nuremberg.

Is this a Favorite Book Read in 2013? Yes! Because of how the story is told: Rose, safe in Paris, telling what happened to her. Rose, trying to figure out what “safe” is. Because of Rose. And Roza. And Irina. And the other women in Ravensbruck. And because while it didn’t break my heart in the way that Code Name Verity did, Rose under Fire was just as heartbreaking in its own way.

A brief P.S.: remember my post in January about characters in books getting their periods? Well, yes, Rose has to figure out what to do when in a concentration camp.

Other reviews: Dear Author; Good Books and Good Wine; See Michelle Read (a great discussion, but spoilers! Many spoilers!); The Book Smugglers.

Review: Boxers and Saints

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Boxers & Saints, Volumes 1 & 2. Edited to add: National Book Awards shortlist

The Plot: The story of the Boxer Rebellion is told through the eyes of a Boxer and a Christian. Each volume is a standalone; but it’s best to first read Boxers, then Saints, and to read both.

The Good: For a discussion of the two volumes, go back to the reviews from earlier this week.

This, instead, will be about why two volumes? And how do they work together? Or, in other words, spoilers.

Boxers is the primary story: of how and why the Boxer Rebellion again, focusing on one young peasant, Bao, and what led him not only to rebel but also to commit atrocities. Since those actions make sense within the context of the rebellion (or, as some scholars say, uprising), it’s a bit of seduction of the reader, to have the reader at least understand Bao’s actions and, perhaps, even, to sympathize; or, even to think, that such acts were necessary.

As a young boy, Bao sees a young girl; later in Boxers, she shows up again, living with the Christians. It’s the eve of a Boxer attack. She has a bit of edge and an attitude.

In Saints, we learn Vibiana’s story: why she stands on the opposite of Bao, how they both love China, why Bao sees the foreigners and Christians as an enemy and why Vibiana sought Christianity and its fellowship. The two stories contrast shared purpose, different outcomes. Also, knowing what happens in Boxers, one knows what happens to both Vibiana and Bao. Except one doesn’t know, it turns out. There is a twist. Both books need to be read, Boxers first and Saints second, to understand the full story of Vibiana and Bao.

So, why Boxers and Saints? Why not just interweave these as two stories? Why not make it one volume?

To make this part of one story — telling a few pages of Bao, a few pages of Vibiana — would, I think, minimize the importance of both. Bao deserves his own book; so, too, does Vibiana; and this way, they both have it. Truth to tell, I think Vibiana’s story would not be as strong if it were interspersed with Bao’s.

It turns out, it’s not just Bao’s and Vibiana’s characters that meet: other people show up in both books, and offer different perspectives about what is or isn’t happening. But isn’t that history? Things that change depend upon perspective? One person’s hero is another’s murderer? What Yang accomplishes here, what is so terrific, is he manages to have the reader by sympathetic to both Bao’s and Vibiana’s beliefs. Yes, Bao — and other Chinese — are subject to humiliations and abuse because of the foreigners, and because of Christian missionaries. Yet switch to the missionaries and to the Chinese Christians and we see people asked, simply, to decide between life and faith. Everyday people, not the decision makers. (Boxers and Saints includes some of those policy makers, but it’s more about average people.)

Because Boxers and Saints shows that heroes, villains, and victims may overlap. For the artful storytelling that is as much about when a part of the story is told as it is about the whole. And, for Bao and Vibiana and China. These are Favorite Books Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Reading Rants.