Review: Midwinterblood

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Always, there is an Eric and a Merle; a hare and a loss; and the island of Blessed.

These are the constants.

What changes in the seven stories of Midwinterblood is the time, starting in the future, 2073, and going back in time again and again until the seventh story set in a time so far past it has no date. What changes are who, exactly, Eric and Merle are; and how they connect or don’t. On what is lost. And always there is the hare.

What is happening? What is going on Blessed?

The Good: I adore stories told like this! Going backward — 2073, 2011, 1944, and so on — emphasizes the mystery. To start at the “beginning”, if that is even the start, would reveal all at once — any tension would disappear.

Instead, it’s 2073 and Eric’s work takes him to Blessed, an isolated island. He meets Merle and feels an instant connection. He also finds himself almost seduced by the island himself, forgetting why he’s there. “The sun does  not go down. That is the first thing that Eric Seven notices about Blessed Island. There will be many other strange things that he will notice, before forgetting takes hold of him, but that will come later.

Something is wrong: despite the friendly villagers, something is obviously not right. But what? And that story ends and suddenly the reader is in 2011.

The island is still Blessed, but there are changes, to the island and the people and what is known or not know. Edward, an archeologist, discovers a viking funeral with two skeletons. He meets two villagers: Merle and her son Eric. There are other changes: there was no hotel or place for visitors to stay in 2073; in 2011, a guest house is mentioned. Changes the reader notices, but unknown and unknowable to the characters who know only their time, their place, their knowledge of history.

One thread is followed, then another, and I loved the mystery of it all. And, as well, the horror. The stories include those of war, of ghosts, even a vampire. The words hint at something more, something worse, and how did this story begin? How can it end? “And there was something about the words she used to tell the story that made them realize something bad was going to happen.”

Because I adore the creepiness; because this type of backwards story, with the mystery falling back in time to be discovered, is the type I love. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews (warning: some have much more spoilers than my review): Sonder Books; Reading Rants; The Book Smugglers; educating alice; crossreferencing (Sarah and Mark).

Review: Bomb

Bomb: The Race To Build – And Steal – The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing. 2012. Edited to add that this is a Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Edited to add: Newbery Medal Honor book; Sibert Book Award; YALSA Nonfiction Award winner.

It’s About: One nice thing about non-fiction titles: they tell you up front what a book will be about. This is about the invention of the atomic bomb, told through three stories: the scientific journey from the discovery of nuclear fission to the creation of and use of the atomic bomb; the spy story, as various people in different countries provide information on the American program to the USSR; and the military story, as commandos worked behind enemy lines in Nazi held Europe to stop the Nazis from being the first to create an atomic bomb.

The Good: One of the reasons I like non-fiction is it shows why spoilers don’t matter. Most readers will know that the Americans were indeed the first to create and use the atomic bomb; so it’s not about whether it happens, but how and why. Because there are three story threads, there is even a possibility that one of those three (the spy story or the commando story) may be new to the reader, providing the suspense some readers need in their books.

One of the reasons I like reading the National Book Award finalists after they are announced is that I can read the book looking for why a title got the nod. Here, I think it’s because of the way the three stories are twined together and complement each other, as well as make each story stronger. It’s also that (like Sheinkin’s Benedict Arnold) the writing style puts the reader in the moment, with the real life characters and events being told.

For those who are aware of the historical events depicted, Sheinkin provides information (or doesn’t provide information) that is enlightening. For example, the details on the raids on Nazi-held plants and planned kidnapping of German scientists; or that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg play such a minor role in the spy ring that they appear on only a few pages and aren’t even mentioned in the index. As a personal aside, when I was growing up the guilt of the Rosenbergs was still hotly debated. (For more on the Rosenbergs, see, for example, The Rosenbergs: A Case of Love, Espionage, Deceit and Betray[al] at the Crime Library.) (As an aside, I would love a book on American Communists for younger readers, especially about things like red diaper babies, with both sympathy and honesty.) While the Rosenbergs don’t figure much in Bomb, many other dedicated Soviets who spy based on various personal and political reasons are mentioned, including both men and women and parents with young children.

See what just happened there? How I wondered about other things, even did a bit of research? That’s one thing I love about a good book: that it satisfies me, yes; but that it also makes me think and want to know more.

Because Bomb shows just how exciting science can be. Because Bomb juggled an amazingly large cast of characters, and it was always clear who was who. Because of the exciting narration and pace. This is one of my Favorite Books Read of 2012.

Other Reviews: BookEnds, a Booklist blog; Educating Alice; at Heavy Medal at SLJ, Nina’s Take and Jonathan’s Take.

Review: White Crow

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rebecca, 16, is spending six weeks of summer vacation with her father at the seaside town of Winterfold. It’s not a relaxing vacation: she and her father are barely speaking. Her boyfriend doesn’t call. She is alone and lonely when she meets up with Ferelith. Strange, brilliant, uncommon Ferelith. A friendship grows between the two teenage girls, a friendship born of loneliness and something more. Ferelith has been waiting, waiting for something. Or someone. And now Rebecca is here, lovely Rebecca, who doesn’t know or understand who Ferelith is. Ferelith wants to explore Winterfold’s dark past, and she wants company, whether or not Rebecca is willing.

Over a hundred years before, another unlikely friendship had sprung up in Winterfold, one between the village’s rector and a French doctor. The rector is obsessed with Heaven and Hell, the doctor, with what happens after a person dies. Together, they make a bloody pact to find the answers.

Answers that Rebecca and Ferelith are about to discover.

The Good: By this point, you may be aware that I enjoy both a good story and how that story is told.

The story: lonely, angry Rebecca. Smart, manipulative Ferelith. An odd, uneven friendship. Ferelith is brilliant but her interactions with people are distant. As she says early on, “I continued my education in a more important way, through the observation of everyone around me, because nothing is more important to learn in life than the interaction of a human being with another human being.” Her view of life is unique and she is drawn to the dark. “I think I was waiting, though I didn’t know what I was waiting for.” Ferelith creates situations to draw Rebecca into her petty thieving, trespassing, and explorations and Rebecca is only half-aware of Ferelith’s manipulations.

Winterfold is a dying town, literally. It is falling into the sea. House, churches, graveyards, have all disappeared beneath the relentless waves. Ancient, abandoned buildings give Ferelith much to explore.  (As an aside, Winterfold is based on a real town, Dunwich. I now want to go there on vacation.)

An unnamed rector lived in Winterfold a century before. His story is one of concern about Hell, of wanting to know what Heaven is like, and the doctor he meets who has an experiment to try to find the answers. All they need is volunteers. The dark rooms where the experiments took place draws Ferelith, and she drags Rebecca along.

How will this madness and horror end?

That is the story: unequal friendships, buried secrets, madness, blood, and the questions. Is there a God? Is there life after death? A Heaven or Hell? Angels or devils?

Now, how the story is told — that is where the book shifts into brilliance. Three voices, three points of view: Rebecca, Ferelith, the rector.

Ferelith, speaking in first person, speaking as if what she writes about has already taken place. All her chapters bear cryptic headings: I’m Not Dead. Catholic Day. Her thoughts are deep, layered.

Rebecca is more straightforward, third person, firmly in the present, talking about what is happening now, in a linear fashion with dates as chapter headings. It is not two people telling their different versions of the same event, or taking turns telling their tale. It is Rebecca’s story, with Ferelith letting the reader know the shadows and complexity which Rebecca is unaware of. Ferelith’s voice makes this compelling, suspenseful, scary, and Rebecca’s voice keeps the story grounded in reality and gives the reader to person to connect with.

The story of the two girls in the present is interspersed with the journal entries of an unnamed Rector where he asks questions about Hell, and gradually reveals just what is being done to discover the existence an afterlife. The reader learns what is happening, what happened, just in time to watch as the girls stumble upon the truth.

White Crow scared the hell out of me. But why? Not because of the horrors of the past. Rather, it’s because Ferelith so smoothly manipulates Rebecca, putting her in danger that is physical, emotional, and mental, playing on Rebecca’s trust and need and loneliness. It’s because the rector is so willing to rationalize events and actions, including manipulation and betraying trust.

Because White Crow scared me for all the right reasons. Because the image of Winterfold disappearing a foot at time haunts me. Because the triple narration showed just exactly how to use different voices and different perspectives. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.