‘The Berlin Girl’ by Mandy Robotham is fascinating and engrossing historical fiction

berlin girl

In this novel of prewar Germany, “The Berlin Girl” by Mandy Robotham brings us right into the close-knit world of the journalists who staff tiny offices in capitals around the world in times of strife. Through the eyes of George Young, born Georgina Young and also known as Georgie Young, we enter the cosmopolitan, complex, and perilous environment of Berlin as the Nazis became more ruthless and less concerned with world approbation.

Continue reading

‘The Unwilling’ by brilliant storyteller John Hart is a searing tale of courage, honor, and war

The Unwilling by John Hart

One of the things that makes John Hart’s novels, including his newest, “The Unwilling,” so compelling is his ability to create complex characters whose actions and courage linger with us long after we’ve finished reading the story. Jason French is one such character, and his inability to reconnect with his family after serving almost three years as a soldier in the Vietnam War is what we first learn about him. We learn much more about not only Jason, but his younger brother Gibby, and their parents. What we learn and how Hart shares the relationships and the emotions is what makes this an unforgettable story.

Continue reading

‘Poisoned’ by Jennifer Donnelly is a beautiful, complex, fractured fairy tale retelling of Snow White

Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly

Jennifer Donnelly’s fairy tale retellings are beautiful in their complexity and their reimagining; but make no mistake, the beauty of the writing doesn’t equate with “beauty” being foremost among the traits of the main characters in her newest fantasy “Poisoned,” or her previous fractured fairy tale, “Stepsister.” Both young adult fairy tales are beautiful in the sense that they take fairy tales in which originally the most important trait of the young women — Snow White and Cinderella — is their beauty and change our concept of what beauty is. Donnelly turns that ideal on its head. And while the Disney cartoon version shows that both fairy tale creations love animals, there isn’t much else about them that has any depth or substance.

Continue reading

‘Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11’ by Alan Gratz is a middle grade novel bringing important historic events into focus for young readers

“Ground Zero” by Alan Gratz

Children’s author Alan Gratz is known and revered for his historical fiction middle grade novels like his newest, “Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11.” As he has done in other novels including the award-winning “Refugee,” Gratz presents readers with two main characters from different backgrounds and different perspectives who share the story in alternating narratives. In “Ground Zero,” we meet Brandon Chavez from New York and Reshmina from Afghanistan.

Continue reading

‘The Girls I’ve Been’ by Tess Sharpe is a surprisingly touching YA story of friendship, love, a bank robbery and much more

The Girls I’ve Been

In “The Girls I’ve Been,” Tess Sharpe’s brilliant writing draws us into the lives of the three teens at the center of this young adult thriller. We meet them just as they are on the cusp of being held hostage at their local bank in rural California, and from the first chapter (the chapters are labeled with the time, and the amount of time that has elapsed since they were taken captive), we are mesmerized by Nora and her extraordinary narration of the events that are happening both in the present and also as she intersperses the present narration with snippets of her past that serve to explain who Nora is now.

Continue reading

‘I Hope You’re Listening’ by Tom Ryan is a thrilling YA story of abduction, guilt, and making amends

In “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan, main character Dee Skinner has never been able to shake her guilt over being the kid who wasn’t abducted. When she was seven, she and her best friend Sibby were playing near their tree fort when Sibby was abducted. And although Dee was right there, she was left behind, helpless, watching as her best friend was carried away by two men, never to be seen again. Continue reading

‘The Dog Who Saved the World’ by Ross Welford is amazingly funny and simultaneously exciting

I must admit, this is the first novel by Ross Welford that I’ve read. It won’t be the last. Actually, the reason this book caught my eye was the “dog” in the title. And this dog, Mr. Mash, is the epitome of dogly dogs. He smells awful from nose (his rank breath) to tail (the gas he emits is constant and horrifying in its ability to spew outward). But he is also the epitome of dogs because he loves everyone, especially main character Georgie. Continue reading

‘A Wolf for a Spell’ by Karah Sutton is an engaging fairytale for middle grade readers

“A Wolf for a Spell” by Karah Sutton is a clever story of magic, determination, unlikely alliances, and folktale figures. We first meet Zima, a wolf with a mind of her own. Instead of hating humans and killing an unprotected girl from the nearby village, she shows mercy. But the presence of magic, and the witch Baba Yaga, the wielder of the magic, have thrown the wolves into a state of discomfort. They are determined to protect themselves from the humans who seem out to destroy the forest and its inhabitants. Continue reading

Winter picture books that celebrate freedom and tradition for all kinds of young readers

There’s no better gift for a child than the gift of a good book. And nothing gets young children more excited about reading than good picture books. Reading good picture books with toddlers can instill in them a love of reading that will last a lifetime.

What better gift could you give?

“Lilah Tov Good Night” by Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) and illustrated by Noar Lee Naggan is not a typical holiday book. There’s no Christmas tree, but there is a menorah. And even though we don’t see the family celebrating Hannukah, it’s clear that they’ve left their homeland for a new beginning, a beginning which includes a better future for their children, and a future where life will be better. The text is simple as the small family packs up a few belongings and leaves their tiny house, where there’s only a small wood stove for warmth and bread and turnips to eat for dinner. They travel far, and cross the water (reminiscent of the ocean that the author’s family, and many of our families, crossed to get to America) before arriving at a small house tucked in the shadow of a mountain. A new home and a new tomorrow. We see the small daughter tucked warmly in her bed, sleeping soundly, with the menorah on her windowsill. It’s a perfect story to share history and tradition with children. Except for the indigenous people, we are all immigrants here, and our ancestors (or we) came here for a better life. A simple, lovely story with beautiful illustrations. The illustrations cleverly use cool blues for the backgrounds while keeping the warm colors, tans and browns, as the focus for the family and the sleeping animals tucked in tight in their winter quarters. Mister G is also the author of the lovely “Señorita Mariposa.” (Nancy Paulsen Books)

“Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!” by Alexandra Alessandri and illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda is a picture book about New Year’s Eve celebrations that takes us on a journey to Columbia in South America, where we see Ava celebrate the holiday with her extended family. This book is not just about the holidays, though. It’s also about being shy — Ava is so shy with her extended family that she can’t bring herself to talk to them. Her cousins and aunts and uncles and even her grandmother seem like strangers. But as we learn about the Año Nuevo celebrations, we also learn about the Año Viejo, and we see Ava gradually become more comfortable with her relatives through her persistence and determination to enjoy the visit. It’s not only a story of the celebration of a different culture during a familiar holiday, it’s a touching story of overcoming painful shyness. (Albert Whitman & Co.)

“Raccoon’s Perfect Snowman” by Katia Wish is about four animal friends who are playing in the snow and building snowmen. One of the three, Raccoon, is a perfectionist. We all know someone like that — someone whose creations must be perfect, flawless. Well, Raccoon shares his rules with Rabbit, Fox and Mouse so that they, too, can build the perfect snowmen. But Raccoon has taken all the clean snow, and he’s used all the tools and the decorations, leaving his friends with less than optimal paths to build their own perfect snowman. Luckily, before it’s too late, Raccoon realizes his mistake and is able to bring the friends together on another project. This book is really about realizing what is important. A perfect snowman is not nearly as important as making friends happy, and that’s a perfectly important discussion that the reader can have with the children who need to hear this lesson. What is the author’s message? Children as young as three and four can start talking about that question and sharing their ideas. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes. 

‘Fireborne’ by Rosaria Munda is a splendid combination of fantasy, friendship, political intrigue, and bloodshed

“FIreborne” by Rosaria Munda is a young adult fantasy with two main characters who alternately share their narrative. The story takes place nine years after a revolution that is very reminiscent of the Russian revolution, wherein the Czar and his family were executed. In a like manner, the “royalty” of Callipolis were murdered. These rulers were called dragonlords, and had their own dragons that served to terrorize their people, including their serfs, basically slaves, the lowest of the classes. Now, post-revolution, instead of being born into being a dragonrider because of your royal family, children of any class can be chosen by a young dragon to be a rider.

We meet Annie and Lee, two teenagers who met as children at an orphanage, and are now Guardians who ride dragons for Callipolis. We know from Lee’s narrative that he was Leo, and the child of one of the ruling dragonlords, Leon Stormscourge. During the bloody uprising, when the dragonlords and their families were murdered in a bloody coup, Leo was spared at the last minute. He ended up in an orphanage with Annie, who was left an orphan when her family was brutally murdered by Leon Stormscourge during a famine, when they couldn’t pay their share of taxes. Her family was barricaded inside their home and the home was set on fire by Stormscourge’s dragon. Annie was forced to watch.

How then, can Annie and Lee, as he is now known, be best friends? The novel reflects Munda’s ability to demonstrate the development of the relationship between those two rather than just telling us about it. We feel for both children as they depend on each other for moral support and affection. Lee ensures that the cruelest of the other orphans can’t take away Annie’s food or beat her. And when Annie depends on Lee, he feels a connection with another human, and he feels that he’s important to someone. Connections are important — especially since he has no family left. When both Lee and Annie are chosen by dragons to be dragonriders, they both eventually yearn to be the top rider, called the Firstrider. Of course, Lee had wanted that title since he was a young child, as it’s one of the few titles that carried over from pre-revolutionary times. But Annie wants it, too, and for a former serf to be declared Firstrider would be revolutionary.

Many of the other characters are complex and not all they appear to be. We meet Atreus, the First Protector, an intriguing character who seems to have the best of intentions when he foments the uprising and, in the name of justice, kills those who were his friends. He appears kind and noble at the start of the story when he saves the young Leo, but as we learn more about him, we wonder just what motivates him now, after the revolution is over. The other young Guardians who have been chosen by dragons to be riders are also multifaceted characters. The most negative and violent of them, a bully and a snob, turns out to be not quite what he seemed to be at first. Perhaps. As “Fireborne” is just the first in a series, there is much that remains to be determined regarding all the characters.

Will Annie and Lee ever act on their love for each other? As Guardians, they forsake ever having a family, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t fall in love. What will the future bring in terms of those of Lee’s extended family who escaped the country, but who are plotting to retake what they believe is rightfully theirs. This story provides the backdrop and the backstory of the two main characters and their country. And while Munda is a debut author, she has shown with the first book that she is capable of creating not only a fantastic world populated with dragons, but also a world in which all-too-human foibles torment its inhabitants just as happens in our world. And the next book in the series will build on what we’ve learned. I’m personally hoping for more about the dragons and their connection to their riders. We know that Annie has an especially strong connection to her dragon; I want to learn more about it.

Munda ends the first book in a satisfactory manner. There is an ending that gives us closure, but also much to wonder about, all of which will keep us waiting anxiously for the next book. We like Annie and Lee, and we want to know what the next step in their lives will bring. I would love to see this book used in high school or middle school and examined to compare this fictional world with the Russian Revolution and the reasons behind the latter. Obviously, no dragons were involved, but did Munda use details from history to make “her” revolution more real? It would be a fascinating study for readers of “Fireborne,” and they might enjoy the research.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘The Downstairs Girl’ by Stacey Lee is the kind of historical fiction that teachers love because it opens eyes and hearts

‘The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee is not what I expected. I was looking forward to an historical fiction novel about class differences, but I wasn’t expecting a book so riveting that I would stay up all night to finish it. With tears in my eyes. 

There is so much that is magnificent about Lee’s writing that I’m almost at a loss regarding where to begin: the historical information that is so important and not something we are taught in school? The intertwining of racism from almost 150 years ago that is depicted so movingly — and so heartbreakingly? The story of a girl searching for her roots, and searching for a place in the world where she can use her talents?

When Jo Kuan loses her job at the millinery shop, a job in which she excelled, she can’t find work. In Atlanta twenty-five years after the Civil War, no one wants help that looks different from a red-blooded Southerner. Kuan’s Chinese ancestry means that she fits in with neither the whites nor the “colored” categories. She and Old Gip, her guardian since she was abandoned as an infant, are somewhere in between.

We learn that Old Gip has worked on the estate of the wealthy, blue-blooded Payne family since he came to America. Jo started working there also as a child, beginning in the stables and working her way up to housemaid, when suddenly one day, Mrs. Payne ordered her out of the house. For no reason. But now Old Gip says that she can go back to the Payne house as a day maid to Caroline, the Payne’s spoiled daughter, who is back from finishing school. Jo and Caroline have a tortured past, and while they grew up together, Caroline was cruel to Jo in countless ways. Caroline does not seem to have changed even after all these years. We follow the relationship between Jo and Caroline and Mrs. Payne as the relationships develop and long-kept secrets come to light.

We also learn about Old Gip and Jo’s living situation. It’s against the law for Chinese to own land or rent, but Old Gip had learned about a hidden basement that had been created by abolitionists, complete with hidden entrances and situated  under the house of the Bell family, owners of one of the Atlanta newspapers, the Focus. While Old Gip has taught Jo mathematics and other subjects, she learned about English through a speaking tube that led to the printing press part of the Bell home. Jo would pull out the sound-dampening wool and listen as the family discussed events, language, words, and stories. Jo feels she knows them all, especially their son Nathan, who is just two years older than she. But they have no idea that others live hidden below them.

When the Bells’ paper is in danger because of flagging subscriptions, they bemoan that the other Atlanta paper has an advice column that draws subscribers. They brainstorm about how they might create a similar attention-grabber. That sets off a spark in Jo’s mind. One of the reasons that she was fired from her job at the hat store was because of her opinions. She was a “saucebox,” as they termed outspoken women back then. Perhaps she could — anonymously, of course — be their advice giver, an agony aunt as it were. She delivers a few columns into their mailbox and is thrilled when they use her writing. At the same time, Jo realizes that if she were ever discovered, she could end up in jail because impersonating a white person is a crime.

Aside from the history lessons, the page-turning plot, and the fabulous depiction of the characters, Lee consistently demonstrates her ability to turn a phrase, to imbue her writing with lovely metaphors, and to make it all seem natural — because the first person narrator is a writer, a person of high intellect, and a person who is extremely perspicacious. In a different narrator, we might not find the narration believable, but because of Jo and her quick understanding, we don’t question it. And some of the writing is so delightful, we must smile and enjoy it.

“My, you are assiduous.”
I frown with the effort of remembering what that particular word means.
Assiduous meaning ‘hardworking.'”
“Yes, I know, young man,” I snap, wondering how I got caught in the same trap twice. “I’ve just never been fond of words that are led by an ass.”
His face tightens, as if with the effort of trying to hold something back. “Ah. Then I shall assay not to assault your ears.”

Throughout the book, the details and the description are magnificent. The writing is engaging, and the plot is intricately woven together with twists that are certainly unexpected but implied effectively with precise foreshadowing. Turning the pages and coming across a lovely metaphor is just one reason that we can’t stop reading, yet we don’t want the beautiful story to end. I smiled as I read and then reread, “Saturday arrives wearing a cloud shawl over her damp shoulders.”

While “The Downstairs Girl” is published as a young adult novel, it boasts enough depth and maturity that readers of all ages will enjoy it. It’s also a fabulous choice for a book club. I can’t wait to see what Stacey Lee writes next.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.