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: 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: The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. Book II of the Raven Cycle. Sequel to Book I – The Raven Boys. Scholastic. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: In Book I, Blue Sargent became friends with the “Raven Boys” — Richard Campbell Gansey III, Ronan Lynch, Adam Parrish, and Noah Czarny. All had become involved in Gansey’s quest to discover in the Virginia countryside the last resting place of the fifteenth century Welsh king, Owen Glendower. A significant step had been made in awaking the ley lines (lines of energy.) It had not been without cost, but all had been excited about the next step.

In The Dream Thieves, they discover that things aren’t as simple as they had hoped. Dangers come from both the outside and the inside. Ronan had confessed to a specific power at the end of The Raven Boys: the ability to bring things out of dreams. What are the limits of this power? Where did it come from? And will it help, or hurt, their quest?

The Good: As a quick recap on our crew: Blue is the local girl from a family of psychics, raised with the prediction that she would kill her true love with a kiss. Gansey is brilliant, rich, and driven is his search for Glendower. He’s the natural leader, but he doesn’t always see what is around him. Ronan’s father is dead and the family in a shambles. Adam, like Blue, is a local; he’s on scholarship at the elite (i.e., expensive) school that Gansey and Ronan attend. And, Noah — well. Noah is a ghost, killed years ago.

Ronan’s story drives The Dream Thieves, as the title tells. After his father’s brutal murder, the terms of his will were a bit — well, strange. “All of the money was theirs, but on one condition: [the three Lynch brothers] were never to set foot on the property again. They were to disturb neither the house nor its contents. Including their mother.” Their father is lost through death; their mother retreats into a type of depression/sadness; and the boys literally cannot return home. Ronan may have money like Gansey, but without family he’s lost. But, wait, three brothers? He has some family then, right? Not quite. His older brother is bossy, his youngest is, well, young.

Ronan’s created family are his friends. They are what matter to him. Gansey wants to find Glendower? Ronan is in. And, as it turns out, Ronan has his own gift that brings him to the search for Glendower. The ability to bring things out of dreams. If that sounds wonderful to you, remember your last nightmare. Would you want to bring that out of your dreams? It also turns out that Gansey’s quest isn’t enough. Ronan wants more excitement in his life, and he gets it from racing cars. Being as I’m not a car person, what I liked about this turn of plot wasn’t the racing itself. It was seeing another side of Ronan; it was seeing Ronan independent of Gansey; and it was seeing how what seemed a distraction turned out to be something significant.

In many ways, Ronan is my favorite.

But Gansey — Gansey is not so much my favorite, as the brightest light. The one who takes all the attention when he’s in the room and doesn’t even know it. The one who doesn’t always realize that he’s sometimes being an arrogant SOB. “Gansey could persuade even the sun to pause and give him the time.” Even with Ronan being my favorite, and Adam being the one I root for, Gansey — Gansey overpowers them both. He’s on the page and no one else matters.

Ronan, as I said, deals with that with his dreams and his racing. Adam, well, Adam already feels inferior because of his family and his poverty so doesn’t deal with it very well. Instead he fights it. Adam is so busy trying to prove his worth and earn his place that he lets some things slip away. (How can one not want Adam to succeed? If Gansey and Ronan were born on third base, walking confidently towards home base, Adam was born ten miles from the baseball field.)

In The Raven Boys, Blue and Adam were attracted to each other, and for part of The Dream Thieves they are sort-of a couple. As much a couple as they can be, given that Blue is going to avoid kissing. Blue’s avoidance, Adam’s own insecurities, leads to — well. Let me just say I loved how realistic this was, and all the feelings! And emotions! Of Blue and Adam.

Which brings me back to Blue. I loved, loved, loved how The Dream Thieves gives a deeper glimpse look into Blue’s family of psychics. I’m still not sure how all these women are related, and what would happen if one of them had a son, but I enjoyed them all. Which brings me to another favorite. (I do have a lot of favorite things in this book, don’t I?)

And that’s Maura and Norman Reedus. Um, OK, not Norman Reedus. But “Mr. Gray” is introduced in The Dream Thieves, in a particularly violent way, beating up Ronan’s older brother. The Gray Man — Mr. Gray — is an educated hit man. He works for hire, and right now is searching for something called the Greywaren. He ends up visiting the psychics and meeting Blue’s mother, Maura. Does the fact that I think of him as Norman Reedus give away that he is a bad guy who is really good, or a good guy who does bad things, or, I’m not quite sure but wowza the chemistry between Maura and Mr. Gray knocked my socks off. And, it led another layer to the story, to the quest.

Because, remember, there is the quest for Glendower. And amongst the car racing and dreams, the not kissing and the Greywaren, family obligations and jobs, there is still the quest. Yes, our intrepid band gets even closer to finding Glendower.

Needless to say: a Favorite Book Read in 2013, and when is the next book coming?

Other reviews: Forever Young Adult; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Teen Librarian Toolbox.

Review: Titanic

Titanic: Voices From The Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson. Scholastic 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Edited to add: Sibert Honor.

It’s About: The sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic on April 15, 1912, resulting in the loss of over 1,400 men, women and children.

The Good: I believe the first Titanic movie I saw was 1958’s A Night to Remember and the first book I read about it was Walter Lord’s 1955 novel on which the movie was based.  I am by no means even an armchair expert, but I’ve read a bunch of books (fiction and nonfiction) and watched a few of the films and documentaries.

Hopkinson’s Titanic gives a thorough look at the disaster, from building to setting sail, to the night it hits an iceberg, the sinking and the aftermath. There are plenty of photographs and other original documents, adding to the information provided.

The story is told using the first-hand accounts of the men, women and children who were on the Titanic, both crew and first-, second-, and third-class passengers. While some of the people were familiar to me (teenage Jack Thayer’s miraculous survival), others were not, such as Frankie Goldsmith, a young boy travelling third-class with his family. Their voices add an immediacy to the story, emphasizing the personal stories of survival. Particularly heartbreaking are the final moments between family members.

For those who want more, Hopkinson includes a bibliography of both books and websites.

Other reviews: Bookends, a Booklist blogGuys Lit Wire; Someday My Printz Will Come.

Review: Endangered

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer. Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sophie, 14, is in Congo (the Democratic Republic of Congo) visiting her mother, who runs a sanctuary for bonobos. During the school year, she lives with her father in America.

Sophie saves a young bonobo who she names Otto; she cares for him, beginning to understand, a bit, why her mother does what she does; why, when her American born father’s company transferred him back to the United States six years ago, her Congolese mother chose to remain in her country and not go with her husband and daughter.

Sophie’s mother is in a remote part of the country, leaving Sophie and the sanctuary workers behind caring for the bonobos, when violence breaks out. An armed revolution has begun. Sophie’s American father and American passport may save her, give her a way to escape the violence, but Sophie cannot bring herself to abandon Otto. Sophie decides to stay with Otto. When the sanctuary itself is attacked, Sophie has to figure out a way to save herself and Otto.

The Good: I’ll be honest; this is another book that I was nudged to read because of it being named a finalist for the National Book Awards. Here, the reason is that I looked at the cover and thought, “animal book,” and I am not an animal person. No, really, despite sharing the house with three cats, six chickens, seven hermit crabs, two ant farms and (on a temporary basis) a bearded dragon. Plus, technically, the crickets that the bearded dragon eats.

So, yes, this is an “animal book” in that Sophie rescues and cares for Otto, a bonobo (a great ape, not a chimpanzee). Endangered will deliver what readers who want animal books want: the bonobos are front and center. The reader learns a lot about bonobos, why they are in danger (the violence in the country they live, as well as hunters and poachers), why a sanctuary is needed for them, why humans (such as Sophie) care for bonobos, how the bonobos interact with one another, and efforts to have the bonobos live in the wild without being in danger from humans. Endangered provides this information but never dumps it on the reader; it is always conveyed as part of the story, of what either Sophie is learning or observing as she takes care of Otto.

The bonobos live in Congo; and the situation there isn’t simple. As Sophie says at the start, “The Democratic Republic of Congo: Where Even the Bullet Holes Have Bullet Holes.” Sophie was born there, raised in the capital of Kinshasa for her first eight years, and now returns every summer. She is half American, and half Congolese, and Schrefer paints a portrait of a girl who is both insider and outsider in both worlds she lives in. In the States, she’d “been the only African girl in the whole school. I’d gotten plenty of looks, with my plastic slippers and hair whose kinkiness I hadn’t decided whether to embrace or fight.” In Congo, she is sometimes called “mundele,” because “any white person was called a mundele. It was a sarcastic way to paint anyone who as white as stuck-up. While my dad is white, my mom is black.”

By having Sophie be part American and part Congolese, Sophie has insider knowledge of what is happening in Congo and the history of that region and language. It also makes her enough of an outsider that when she ends up her own, with Otto, she has to be careful when she meets others Congelese. A revolution is going on, and she knows she is at risk, as a female and as an American. Endangered is a look at a country, it’s history and people and complexities. It’s not all violence and bullets — far from it. More on that below.

When the revolution breaks out, Sophie does not take advantage of the escape offered because of her passport because she refuses to abandon Otto. On one level, it’s because of her tight bond with Otto; go deeper, and it’s Sophie’s sense of responsibility because she fears that Otto has so bonded with her that he will not survive without her; go even deeper, and it’s about Sophie’s own issues from having been “abandoned” by her mother when her mother chose the bonobo sanctuary over moving to America with her husband and daughter. Sophie sacrifices safety and comfort to protect Otto. Endangered is also a coming of age story as Sophie matures, growing in understanding and acceptance of her mother’s own choices (including the realization that the choices weren’t simple) as well as her own choices in deciding to risk so much for a bonobo.

The risks of being in the middle of an armed conflict — Schrefer handles this with a perfect touch. The violence and risks are clear from the first page (bullet holes have bullet holes); and, yes, people are killed. People Sophie cares about are killed. There are scenes that are heart-breaking, but Schrefer knows just what to say and what not to say to portray the danger while not being unnecessarily graphic. For example, Sophie often observes the risks a girl faces alone. At the start she is in guarded areas, and later on she has to figure how to hide from others. Sophie never specifies that what she fears is sexual assault and rape.

Endangered becomes the ultimate survival story when Sophie refuses to leave Otto. The sanctuary is attacked, and Sophie escapes into the bonobo enclosure that is protected by an electrified fence. She is safe from the armed combatants but can hear the gunfire and screams; she has also locked herself into an enclosure with adult bonobos who may see her, a human, as a threat. There is no food, no shelter, and she has to care for Otto. As time passes, the enclosure no longer is safe and Sophie is forced into the countryside, trying to find a way to get to her mother.

As mentioned earlier, Sophie has much to fear, as a young girl traveling alone; as a person travelling with a bonobo that some may view as a food source. Sophie meets people as she travels, people who help, people she has to hide from. The diversity of the people of Congo is shown in her travels, as well as the staff at the sanctuary; while Sophie is caught in the midst of a revolution, it’s quite clear that Congo is more than a place of violence. One of the things I really liked about Endangered is the way it portrayed Congo and its people and its history. Sophie being forced outside the sanctuary and enclosure is another example of how Endangered is has multiple layers: the surface one of Sophie and Otto’s journey; the deeper one of Sophie being forced out of her childhood, having to rely only on herself, not on parents or friends or country.

I don’t want to spoil what happens, or give away the ending, because I know many people read to find out what happens. I will say that I liked how Sophie’s journey ends; I love the woman she becomes; I like that the ending is hopeful but not unrealistic and that what happens with Otto is likewise true to the situation rather than a Hollywood movie.

Endangered is easily one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012, because I adored Sophie even when I was yelling at her about her choices. I’ll be honest, I’d have gotten into the van for the airport and waved good-bye to Otto. This is a favorite book because despite being the non-animal person I ended up caring for Otto, and understanding why Sophie and her mother do what they do. More reasons I love this book: because I learned about the situation in Congo and the impact of wealthy foreigners on that country; because Sophie was smart and a survivor; because of the suspense and tension about what was going to happen to both Sophie and Otto; and because no easy, simple answers were given about Sophie, the bonobos, Congo, or the Congolese.

Other reviews: Educating Alice; A Patchwork of Books; Bookshelves of Doom; and The New York Times Book Review.

Review: The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. 2012. Reviewed from arc from publisher. Official website.

The Plot: Blue Sargent, sixteen, is part of a family of psychics in Henrietta, Virginia. Since she can remember, the same prediction has been made about her: she would kill her true love. With a kiss. Blue keeps people at arms length, to make sure that prediction doesn’t come true or is at least delayed.

Richard “Dick” Campbell Gansey III attends Aglionby Academy, an exclusive boys school in Henrietta Virginia. He’s on a quest to discover Owen Glendower, a Welsh king who led armies against the English and disappeared in the early fifteenth century. He’s pulled his friends into his search: Ronan, Adam, Noah.

Blue stays away boys like Gansey, rich, spoiled, Raven boys. When their paths cross, she knows she should stay away from them. Gansey, rich and driven. Adam, the scholarship student with a chip on his shoulder. Ronan, lost and angry following the death of his father. Noah, quiet, watching, observing. Blue knows she should stay away —  but she cannot help it. The adventure of finding Glendower, of discovering the magic in the world, the laughter and trust of friendship, and, maybe, love.

Oh, those Raven boys.

The Good: This book is better than a hot fudge sundae. With whipped cream. No, really.

Blue knows the supernatural is real. She’s in a family of psychics, remember? She’s not one; her gift is to make the talent of those around her stronger. Gansey hopes the supernatural is real. Yes, he’s good at finding things, and yes, he’s spent years and trust fund money on the search for Glendower. It’s not the burial place he wants. Gansey is convinced that Glendower is only sleeping and can be woken. Gansey’s belief is so strong that he’s persuaded Ronan and Adam and Noah to join him on his quest. Part of the fun of The Raven Boys is how Blue and Gansey and the others meet up. How they form a team. No, more than a team, a friendship.

Oh, and if you’re thinking if Blue’s family is psychic why don’t they just look into the future and see everything —  that’s not quite how it works. As Blue explains at one point, it’s “a realization that even if you had discovered the future, it really didn’t change how you lived in the present. They were truth, but they weren’t all of the truth.” Perhaps that is the reason why, despite the prediction that Blue will kill her true love, she doesn’t keep the boys at arms length. She even finds herself falling for one of them. So easy to think, before it happens, oh, she’ll stay away from boys and so keep herself and her true love safe. So different when the boy you want is real, rather than a hypothetical.

While raving about this book on Twitter, someone asked if there was a cliffhanger ending. No, not really. The Raven Boys is the first in a four part series; and this part is about a necessary step that needs to be taken in the search for Glendower. There are twists and turns, and surprising things happen, and there are hints that there are more layers to the supernatural than is shown. There are the secrets and references — for example, I’m convinced that Stiefvater refers to a geis, just not by name. Which, if true, shows that for all the reader thinks they know by the end of The Raven Boys, there is so much more to learn.

I loved this book; and yes, it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2012. Unfortunately for you, and frustrating for me, some of the things I want to gush over are, well, spoilerish. (My definition of spoiler — things I wouldn’t want to know before reading.) So, alas, this book review is short except to say — Blue, Gansey, Noah, Ronan, and Adam are all wonderful characters. No, not characters, people, they are that real. The myth and magic and supernatural woven into the real world is just the type of fantasy I adore, and I can’t wait to see how much more is shown in the next books. There are turns and twists and reveals that made me reread this book right away, because I wanted to stay in this world but also because I wanted a better appreciation of how The Raven Boys was put together. What was told when? What was shared when?

How’s that for a lovefest with few details? Like I said: a hot fudge sundae of a book.

Review: The Dark Unwinding

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron. Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: June, 1852. England. Orphaned Katherine Tulman owes everything to her Aunt Alice. Not in a good way. When Katherine was left orphaned, Alice was the one who took in her late husband’s niece. Aunt Alice makes it known that in every possible way that without Alice, Katherine would be on the streets. With nothing. Aunt Alice fears that her husband’s eldest brother is spending all his money, which will mean nothing left for Alice’s son.

Aunt Alice’s instructions are clear: Katherine is to travel to Stranwyne Keep, the family estate. Get proof that her uncle is incapable of handling his own affairs. Report back to Aunt Alice and her solicitors, so that Alice can seize control of the family fortune and property on behalf of the sole living heir, her own son, Robert. (The family property goes strictly to the eldest living male heir, so Katherine, as a female, is excluded.) Katherine agrees, because as a poor orphan with no prospects, her only hope for future food and shelter is that young Robert gains his inheritance so he can, like his mother before him, take care of the poor relative.

Katherine arrives at Stranwyne. She meets her uncle Frederick. Aunt Alice is both right, and wrong, about what is happening with her uncle and the Tulman fortune. Her uncle is child-like, who lives with odd self-imposed rules and is also a brilliant inventor. Money has been spent on the inventions; but money has also been spent in taking 900 men, women and children from the workhouses of London to create a community that, given time, will not just be self-sufficient but also a source of income. The longer Katherine stays, the more she becomes attached to her uncle and the local villagers; but she cannot forget that it is her aunt who ensures her future. What should she do?

The Good: Uncle Frederick’s inventions are, for the most part, automatons. The descriptions of them seem almost fantastical; but this is not a story of magic or fantasy. It’s historical fiction, and the described automatons reflect the science of the day. Cameron’s website includes links to some videos of automatons. Stranwyne is also based in historic reality: Welbeck Abbey. I love how two of the aspects of this book are things that seem so unreal or unlikely that one could think The Dark Unwinding is a fantasy. It is not. Instead, it’s the type of historical fiction I really enjoy, grounded in lesser-known history.

Katherine is an interesting character, between a rock and a hard place. Aunt Alice is a nasty bit of business. When Katherine meets some resistance and suspicion from her uncle’s employees, Katherine thinks “the normalcy of being in a room with with a woman who despised me had restored some of my common sense.” Katherine, despite herself, wants more from life even if she cannot voice it, cannot dream it. She decides to delay reporting back to her aunt, and as each day goes by, she grows closer to the villagers: the housekeeper/cook, Mrs. Jeffries; her 18 year old nephew, Lane; Davy, a young mute boy; Ben Aldridge, an engineering student from Cambridge studying her uncle’s inventions. All seem to share a common goal: convince Katherine to not tell the truth about Uncle Tully’s condition. Are their friendships, are the flirtations of Lane and Ben, to be trusted? Katherine isn’t even sure she can trust herself: she starts sleepwalking and having memory loss.

I loved the idea of the Tulman family (Frederick’s mother, not his brothers or his sister in law) trying to figure out a way to protect Frederick and the money; and the solution of creating a self-sufficient village. Invest in crafts and industry, an investment of several years, and yes, it will cost money at first, but in the long run it creates a home and livelihood for people in addition to preserving enough family money. I also loved Uncle Tully and his inventions. Can all these people survive Aunt Alice and the laws that seem to be on her side? I also loved the Stranwyne Keep itself: full of rooms and hallways and pathways.

Finally, I loved that The Dark Unwinding surprised me. First, by not being a fantasy. Second, by it’s interesting look at history. Next, by Katherine herself, damaged and hurt and learning for the first time to trust and love. Finally – the ending! So unexpected yet it makes sense. And it’s brave because it makes sense but it’s not what the reader wants. The Dark Unwinding rather gives the reader what he needs. A good story.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Reading Everywhere; The Ninja Librarian (and author interview).

Review: The List

The List by Siobhan Vivian. PUSH, an imprint of Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from PLA.

The Plot:  Mount Washington High School has a tradition: each year, before Homecoming, a list is made. The four prettiest girls in school, one in each grade. And the four ugliest girls, one in each grade. This year’s anointed pretty girls: Abby, Lauren, Bridget, Margo. The ugly girls: Danielle, Candace, Sarah, Jennifer. The List is their story, of how it impacts each girl.

The Good: Eight story lines are juggled; eight points of view come together for one story about the power of words and labels. The List is also about casual, everyday cruelty; a meanness that here is in high school, brought to the forefront because of the list, but it could happen anywhere or anytime. Some people are “broken” by the list; some are made stronger; some embrace it; others, reject it.

Confession: I love books with this type of structure, going back and forth between characters, having some overlap, and shifting points of view.

The pretty girls: Abby, the pretty girl more interested in planning each outfit for the day than doing any homework. The list confirms to her that her priorities are the right ones. She’s shallow, yes, but also likable. I just wanted to shake some sense into her. (I totally pictured the younger sister from Ten Things I Hate About You.)

Lauren, the former homeschooler. Getting on the list means getting instant best friends, and her upbringing has left her a bit unsure who to trust.

Bridget, whose summer weight loss gets her on the list. Too bad that means keeping up the unhealthy habits she uses to keep her weight down.

Margo, who feels like getting on the list guarantees a happy senior year.

The ugly girls: Danielle, who before the list was a happy, confident swimmer with an attentive boyfriend. The list brings about self-doubt, and shows the cracks in her relationship with her boyfriend.

Candace, a popular girl who is also mean. The type of girl who would expect to be on the pretty list. The loss of status means a loss of friends.

Sarah, an outsider who decides to go full-on ugly. Her classmates think she’s ugly? She’ll show them ugly!

Jennifer, who has gotten on the list four years in a row. Sympathy and pity from her fellow students may be the beginnings of friendship.

The pretty girls, of course, have less issues than the ugly girls, but they also have negative consequences: Abby continues to ignore schoolwork. Lauren’s mother distrusts what is going on. Bridget obsesses about dress size. Margo, who has been enemies with Jennifer since before high school, is shocked to find her friends befriending Jennifer. The ugly girls, though — those are the ones who it hits, and hits hard, because it’s a world judges by looks.

I had two favorite story lines: Danielle and Margo. Danielle was such a strong character, to see the seeds of self doubt planted was heart breaking. Luckily, she is not alone: she has friends and her team rallies behind her. (Her boyfriend, well, let’s just say I think it’s a good thing she realized just how weak he was. This was a gift, Danielle!)

Margo, on the other hand, has a strong voice: the dynamics between and Jennifer were fascinating. They stopped being friends because, well, they changed. It happens. Friendships don’t have to end for big, dramatic reasons. Jennifer refuses to accept it, and that refusal shapes her attitude toward the list and toward Margo.

Other reviews: New York Times review; Stacked; YA Librarian Tales

Edited to add: I got so caught up in the stories that, until discussing this with the author on Twitter, I forget a HUGE part of the book.

The important impact of the books is not Jennifer, Sarah, Danielle, Lauren, or the others. The impact that matters is the one on the reader.

That can be a tricky thing for a book, to expect that engagement from the reader, because we’re used to characters changing, growing, in books, not ourselves. Abby’s in the same place, we may say — but that doesn’t matter. The reality is, for the Abbys of the world? They won’t change. And that’s important to have in a book.

Questions that I came away with, in a feel it in my gut way, not a putting together a book discussion way: How do I define myself, “ugly” or “pretty”? If someone threw that label at me, what would I do? Do I do that to others? Why do these labels have power, and why do people use that power?

Review: The Girls of No Return

The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin. Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Lida, sixteen, has been sent by her father and stepmother to the Alice Marshall School in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. Alice Marshall isn’t a school that girls test into; at least, not with school grades and entrance exams. It’s a school that girls are sent to: girls who have done something, a Thing that is more misdemeanor than felony.

Lida is silent about her Thing, both to the reader and to the other girls at Alice Marshall. Quiet, more lonely than shy, she keeps to herself, trying to avoid her cabin mates, especially the volatile Boone. Then, Gia comes to Alice Marshall. There is something about Gia, and all Lida knows is that she wants to be Gia’s friend. To be more than Gia’s friend: to be important to her. No matter what the cost.

The Good: Different story threads are woven through The Girls of No Return. There is Lida and her Thing, the Thing she did to warrant being sent away to an isolated wilderness school. Why is Lida like she is, so shut off from others? What could she have possibly done?

There is the story of love and friendship between teenage girls, with emotions heightened because of their isolation. For Lida, this is doubly true because while at Alice Marshall she is physically isolated from the world, just like the other girls, Lida has always been emotionally isolated. The small world of Alice Marshall ironically offers Lida an opportunity to develop real connections and real friendships. Or are they real? The girls are here for many different reasons; while what Lida needs is friendship, or, rather, to be chosen, to be wanted, to be someone’s “best,” that is not what other girls want or need or offer. Some do offer friendship; others, honesty, no matter how blunt or brutal; and some people’s needs can only be met by using or hurting others.

The Girls of No Return is told with flashbacks, with the Lida now (roughly two years after the events at Alice Marshall) telling the story that happened then. So, the book begins with an “Epilogue,” and that epilogue is sprinkled throughout the book, with the final chapter named “Prologue.” It is the Epilogue to the events that happened at Alice Marshall, and a prologue to the rest of Lida’s life. The Epilogue tells the reader, from the start, that Lida has survived; as the novel continues, and that Epilogue continues, the reader not only begins to discover what happened at Alice Marshall but also that the Lida in the present is healthy, has friends, yet is haunted by what that happened. What is it? The suspense builds as the dynamics between the wounded Lida, edgy Boone and ethereal Gia are gradually revealed.

Lida is a tough person to like. She’s built up a lot of walls, but one gets glimpses of her humor and intelligence. Because Lida is telling the story, not every reader will realize that Lida’s isolation is partly of her own making. A quick disclosure: reading this as an adult, I began with a greater sympathy to Lida’s parents than Lida herself had.  Then, when Lida’s “Thing” is shared, I didn’t see how her parents thought that Alice Marshall was the answer. What do I know, though, because in many ways, Alice Marshall was what Lida needed.

The Girls of No Return is a story of forgiveness; of not letting the past control the future; and the decisions and choices we make, both in actions taken and not taken.