Tag Archives: historical fiction

Sarah Cohen-Scali’s Max is definitely the most disturbing YA I’ve read this year, but it is also one of the most powerful

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Max is an uncomfortable read.   The cover and the Amnesty International endorsement make it clear that this is a pretty hard core book.  In short, the images may disturb you.  I thought it was fascinating and innovative, so it got a four star rating, but it might be too much for some YA readers.


Goodreads Summary

Nazi Germany. 1936.

“I should have been born yesterday, but that’s not what I wanted. The date didn’t suit me. So I’ve stayed put. Motionless. Rigid. Of course that means a lot of pain for my mother, but she’s a brave woman, and she’s putting up with the delay without complaint. I’m sure she approves of my tactic.

“My wish, the first of my future life, is to come into the world on April 20. Because that’s the Führer’s birthday. If I’m born on April 20, I will be blessed by the Germanic gods and seen as the firstborn of the master race. The Aryan race will henceforth rule the world.”

In the Lebensborn program, carefully selected German women are recruited by the Nazis to give birth to new members of the Aryan race. Inside one of these women is Max, literally counting the minutes until he is born and he can fulfill his destiny as the perfect Aryan specimen.

Max is taken away from his birth mother soon after he enters the world. Raised under the ideology and direction of the Nazi Party, he grows up without any family, without affection or tenderness, and he soon becomes the mascot of the program. That is until he meets Lukas, a young Jewish boy whom he knows he is meant to despise. Instead, the friendship that blossoms changes Max’s world forever. 

My Thoughts

So, why is this one of the most unsettling books I’ve read this year?  It is the adult tone of the narrator, which never varies from his introduction in the womb until the end of the book.  It is the unflinching descriptions of rape, murder and human experimentation.  It is the Nazi rhetoric that the narrator is born believing in wholeheartedly and without question.  Honestly, it makes for compelling and horrifying reading.  I found it hard to put down, but I’m not sure it is something everyone should pick up.  Readers who aren’t careful might just miss the message, and I honestly feared that this much exposure to Nazi rhetoric was a bad idea, even though I understood the ultimate goal.  It is a book that I think needs to come with a careful discussion and guidance.  As a teacher, I can say it’s going to be problematic for schools because of the content – graphic descriptions of awful crimes against humanity and blunt descriptions of sex, mostly non-consensual.  I get the message the book is intending to share and it is a powerful work.  I really liked the book and I believe it is an amazing concept, but it isn’t something I would hand to a YA reader. 

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Wintersong by S. Jae-James might just enchant you

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Wintersong by S. Jae-James might just enchant you

I have had a long standing fascination with the Goblin King, and S. Jae-Jones’ Wintersong seemed like just the book I would adore.  I wasn’t far from the mark.  Fans of my childhood obsession, Labyrinth, and Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market will find that Wintersong is the right blend of dark and light.  If you like the Stolen Songbird series or The Hollow Kingdom series, you will want to see what this book has to offer.  I will say this felt a little heavier than your average YA, something I wasn’t prepared for, but that isn’t necessarily a negative.  I gave this book four stars.


Goodreads Summary

Beware the goblin men and the wares they sell.

All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.

But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.

Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world. 

My Thoughts

This book is a lot of work to read.  The ornate writing is full of vivid imagery and the historical setting is carefull detailed and crafted, but those two characteristics will be a turn off for some readers.  The central issue, the gender of the main character, is going to be lost on many modern readers who don’t feel their gender really limits their options.  Still, it is a fairy tale bound to enchant, particularly older readers who grew up watching Labrinyth and thinking about the seductive goblin king.  The book does play heavy on the sacrifices that love demands, and that dramatic and heart-wrenching romance could appeal to teen readers, but this feels like a story that will appeal to adult readers of YA more than actual YA readers.  Some sensuality and situations means this is best for the older high school crowd.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Forbidden by Eve Bunting packs a lot of atmospheric punch, but little else to hold a YA reader’s attention

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Forbidden by Eve Bunting packs a lot of atmospheric punch, but little else to hold a YA reader’s attention

If you are looking for  atmosphere, this book has it.  It is as creepy as the cover promises.  The problem is that there is little else that will appeal to most readers of YA.  Someone did this book a real disservice by forcing it into a YA mold when it would have been a fairly spectacular upper elementary read.  I wanted to like it, but in the end, I just had to give it a two star rating.

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Goodreads Summary

In early-nineteenth century Scotland, sixteen-year-old Josie, an orphan, is sent to live with an aunt and uncle on the rocky, stormy northwest coast. Everything and everyone in her new surroundings, including her relatives, is sinister, threatening, and mysterious. She’s told that Eli, the young man she’s attracted to, is forbidden to her, but not why. Spirited, curious, and determined, Josie sets out to learn the village’s secrets and discovers evil, fueled by heartless greed, as well as a ghostly presence eager for revenge. An author’s note gives the historical inspiration for this story

My Thoughts

I tried to give this book the benefit of the doubt, but the truth is that the characters are lacking in complexity, and the romance is ridiculously rushed.  It will leave most YA readers dissatisfied. If someone had just knocked the protagonist’s age down a few more years and considered friendship tinged with a first flush of a crush instead of a manic romance, this would have been a perfect follow up for young fans of books like Wait Till Helen Comes.  It radiates a sinister atmosphere that has readers guessing that somehow, someway, young Josie’s soul is going to be in peril.  I honestly had a whole host of horrible ideas in my head, and I wasn’t terribly disappointed with the more realistic path the book chose.  Of course, I guessed the answer long before Josie did, and most readers will as well, but I think it would have played well to a younger crowd who hadn’t seen these kinds of twists before.  I don’t think they would have been as bothered by the stilted feel of the formal language, either.  I think this book is going to be most appealing to young middle school readers.  It is a fast read, and while certain elements bothered me, I thought it was compelling enough.  Language and situations are appropriate for all ages, but this is definitely one that younger readers will appreciate more.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Silver in the Blood By Jessica Day George was a surprising disappointment on my summer TBR list

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Silver in the Blood By Jessica Day George was a surprising disappointment on my summer TBR list

 Silver in the Blood is YA historical fantasy set in the 1890’s.  I’m usually all over that kind of book, but this one was disappointing.  I think the premise will bring in a lot of first day readers, especially since one blurb recommended it to fans of Cassandra Clare and Libba Bray.  However, while elements each of those authors used are present in this story (time frame/surprise genetic inheritance), the writing doesn’t compare.  

     

Goodreads Summary

Society girls from New York City circa 1890, Dacia and Lou never desired to know more about their lineage, instead preferring to gossip about the mysterious Romanian family that they barely knew. But upon turning seventeen, the girls must return to their homeland to meet their relatives, find proper husbands, and—most terrifyingly—learn the deep family secrets of The Claw, The Wing, and The Smoke. The Florescus, after all, are shape-shifters, and it is time for Dacia and Lou to fulfill the prophecy that demands their acceptance of this fate . . . or fight against this cruel inheritance with all their might.

With a gorgeous Romanian setting, stunning Parisian gowns, and dark brooding young men, readers will be swept up by this epic adventure of two girls in a battle for their lives. 

My Thoughts

While this was a promising premise, and there were things I did like about this book, I was distracted by narrative elements that I found frustrating.  The book is a dual narrative between the cousins, Dacia and Lou.  Of the two, Lou’s character arc is the strongest, and I enjoyed her transformation from uncertain and self conscious to empowered and confident.  If Lou’s perspective had been the focus, I think this would have been a stronger book.  The real problem for me was the repetition and slow pace that the dual perspectives created.  This drag and repetition was especially noticeable because the narrative rotated between formats:  letters, journal entries, telegraphs, newspaper notices and traditional story structure.  This meant that you could read about Dacia’s feelings or a plot point in two different formats after you had already inferred them from indirect characterization.  I didn’t understand the need to read a telegraph telling Lou’s father there was a change of plans when it was obvious there was a change of plans from the action.  It would have been much less intrusive to be told that Lou sent another telegram. It felt like the author was overly committed to the formatting and no one pointed out when it slipped into absurdity.  The other tiresome element was the decision to keep both girls in the dark about the family secrets until halfway through the book.  Within seconds of reading the publisher’s blurb the reader knows the “secret,” so the only thing gained by keeping Dacia and Lou in the dark is frustration.   I wish I hadn’t been so distracted by formatting and frustration.  I felt like it killed a story that I could have enjoyed otherwise.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Queen of Someday and Queen of Tomorrow bring Catherine the Great’s life alive for YA readers looking for an entertaining mix of drama, romance and horror.

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Queen of Someday and Queen of Tomorrow bring Catherine the Great’s life alive for YA readers looking for an entertaining mix of drama, romance and horror.

I have been fascinated by Catherine The Great since I saw a TV mini series about her when I was twelve (so innappropriate – I swear it is like I had no parents when it came to movies and books).  I remember being swept away by the thwarted romance of Catherine’s life, so chances are good that this series will appeal to teens because this is one queen who definitely had her share of grief (and lovers) on her way to the top.  The first two  Stolen Empire books read pretty closely to my memories of that TV series.  They focus on the dramatics – sex, love, cruelty and injustice.  They aren’t exactly historically accurate, but they do entertain.  They are not appropriate for young readers, but they won’t scar anyone who gets their hands on them either.  Well, no more than V.C. Andrews scarred little ole’ preteen me (Heaven might have scarred me, actually).

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Queen of Someday begins with Princess Sophie dispatching the assassins who attack her and her mother as they journey to the Imperial court of Russia.  Sophie needs to catch the eye of the heir, Peter, and make a marriage that will save her country and her family.  She isn’t prepared for the political intrigue or the endless games of the court, but her sensible attitude and willingness to comply with orders makes her a very impressive match, at least in the eyes of the Empress.  Alas, her heart begins to war with her dedication to her family, and as Peter becomes increasingly strange, Sophie must choose between the future she longs for and the future that fate seems determined to give her.  This is a romanticized version of what I know about Sophie/Catherine’s early life.  Clearly, we all know how this is going to turn out, but there is something so engaging about the way things happen.  The characters and the setting are vividly drawn and the romance will leave YA readers a little breathless when the other, strangely twisted love story isn’t making you cringe.  I liked Sophie because she was one tough cookie, even when other people wanted to break her, she endures.  There is some annoying poetry, so, prepare yourself, but as far as reading for pleasure, this book will certainly keep readers entertained.

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Queen of Tomorrow picks up where Queen of Someday left off, and the pressure to provide the Empress with a male heir for Russia has the newly married Catherine . . . well, you know what she has to do.  This book pretty much centers around that conflict.  Peter is still crazy, and the Empress is still manipulative and selfish.  Catherine is forced to walk a fine line and play diplomat as the intrigues and infidelities of the Russian court shift more often than the tide.  As every happiness Catherine manages to find is thwarted time and again, she loses sight of her purpose and power.  The question in this book is will it finally break her?  I enjoyed this book as much as the first, and I think other readers will as well.  Catherine’s biggest strength is her ability to gain the loyalty of people that other nobles have alienated or disregarded, but her darker thoughts definitely keep her from feeling too good to be true.  She has a depth and awareness that makes her more than just a girl in a pretty dress, but that sometimes makes her seem a little older than the age she is suppose to be portraying.  The book is well paced to take readers on a journey of highs and lows, and this one ends with a pretty intriguing resolution that will have fans ready for book three.  Because this book focuses on the making of an heir, it is probably most appropriate for high school readers, though scenes of sensuality are more hinted at than explicitly detailed.  These are books for YA readers who want drama, scandal, and romance, so if you are looking for a more historically accurate picture, this isn’t the book for you (the author, herself, is very upfront about that).

I received an ARC of Queen of Tomorrow from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Dead to Me — a five star YA mystery set in Hollywood’s most glamorous era

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Dead to Me — a five star YA mystery set in Hollywood’s most glamorous era

Think L.A. Confidential for the YA crowd, but don’t dismiss it because it is YA.  Smart, dangerous and seedy, this mystery won’t let you go until the last page.  



Dead to Me is set in the Hollywood of the Black Dahlia and offers a mystery just as seedy and evocative. When Alice’s sister turns up in a hospital beaten and unconscious, four years after walking out of her life, sixteen year old Alice keeps the news to herself and sets off on a trek through the dark side of Hollywood to find out who tried to kill her. What she finds will change her life, and the lives of some of the most rich and famous irrevicably. The plot is fast, intense, and dark. Twists and betrayals slithered from back rooms and luxurious cars while kindness and bravery scrambled from flophouses and tragedy. Alice was a fully realized character who fumbled and fought for justice and answers in an seemingly endless web of corruption. It was smart and kept me guessing right up until the end. I adored it. The cover doesn’t really grab me, and historical fiction is a hard sell to many high school readers, but it is hard to resist the lure of the story once the first few chapters have you in their thrall.   Many situations, while not graphic, are about predatory sexual behavior, so this is one for grades nine and up.

I recieved an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.