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Historical Fiction

News of the World: a novel, by Paulette Jiles

News of the World: a novel, by Paulette Jiles

News of the World has been a really popular book, and after reading it, I can see why.  Paulette Jiles did meticulous research in order to take us on a post-Civil War journey from northern to southern Texas.  Captain Kidd, an elderly veteran and widower, has reluctantly agreed to take a young girl (Johanna) to near San Antonio to be reunited with her aunt and uncle.  She was taken captive by the Kiowa Indians, and her parents killed, four years previously.  The Captain has made a life from traveling around the towns of Texas, getting paid to read newspapers from faraway places to people who have little other communication with the rest of the world.  It appears he's made a mistake in agreeing to make the journey with Johanna--she only speaks Kiowa, has completely abandoned the ways of white people, and having been once again wrenched away from the only life she knows, is by turns difficult, sullen, and terrified.  Also, Texas at this time is largely lawless, not every stranger along the way proves to be a friend, and the elements themselves, such as flooded rivers, all combine to make for a perilous journey indeed.

I was struck by Jiles' skill in showing the clash between cultures, the difficulties of communicating for the two main characters, and yet what's possible with Johanna's young mind being able to make new connections as well as reach back into the past, and with the Captain's experience and patience. Along the way, the Captain and Johanna find solace in each other's company, fight together to survive, and show that the concept of "family" is not dicated by one's blood.

Number of Pages: 
213

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

The Sport of Kings is a contender in this year's Morning News Tournament of Books. (This won't be the last time I mention this fabulous tournament.) Morgan tackles the legacy of slavery in Kentucky by way of the Kentucky Derby. First we meet the Forge family and a young Henry Forge on his plantation. He wants to break from his father's farm. He becomes obsessed with horses and horse racing, a thing his father finds despicable and would disown him for. I found it hard to pin this book down in time. It felt like Henry's youth was taking place in the 1860s when it was more like the 1960s in reality. I hope this was intentional. Then we are introduced to Henry's daughter as she is a grown woman being groomed to take over the business. Until she falls for Allmon Shaughnessy, a groomer she hires. We get Allmon's background as well. His ancestors crossed the river to escape to Ohio while slavery was an institution in Kentucky. Now Allmon finds himself on the wrong side of the river, trying to grab hold of his future. This is a dense and lyrical book yet I found it hard to break through the  pages of description and natural history at times. Darwin is huge in this book. But the human drama was nicely told. Allmon's story is much more sympathetic than the Family Forge's, though Allmon and Henrietta Forge both remain victims of their past and we are left with the question of when will history stop repeating itself?

Number of Pages: 
545

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

It was an absolute joy to re-read One Crazy Summer this month along with my wonderful Brentwood Bookworms. This first book in the Gaither Sisters trilogy introduces us to Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. They live with their father and grandmother in New York City, but this one crazy summer, their father decides to send them to Oakland, CA, to be with their estranged mother, Cecile. It's 1968, and tensions are as high in the little stucco house as they are across America. Cecile wants only to work on her poetry, and the girls are sent to the neighborhood community center for meals and summer camp with the local Black Panther chapter. Throughout the turmoil, Delphine will struggle to keep her sisters together, better understand race relations in the U.S., and attempt to forge a bond with her seemingly cold mother. This lovely novel is poignant, funny, and a great discussion-starter for upper-grade school children and tweens!

Number of Pages: 
218

Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words by Margarita Engle

Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words by Margarita Engle

In the mid-19th century, over a quarter of a million Chinese people were sent to Cuba and Peru as indentured servants. After serving eight years, they had the "option" (which wasn't always an option) of resigning for another eight years, but many did seek independence and fought for the freedom of all of Cuba's citizens. Then, in the 1870s, anti-Asian riots in California sent many Chinese-Americans to seek refuge in Cuba, bringing with them American ideals of liberty and thus bolstering the cause of Cuban independence. Amid all this, Antonio Chuffat, a young journalist, captured the spirit and voices of the oppressed Chinese living in Cuba in attempts to reverse their fate and change the country's use of forced labor.

Lion Island is the final installment of Margarita Engle's fantastic quasi-series of novels-in-verse about real life heroes who struggled to help Cuba fight slavery and achieve independence from Spain. I love the range of voices here, which highlight a part of history of which I was previously unaware. I am sorry to learn that this is the last book in this vein of her historical fiction novels, but I can't wait to see what she has in store for us next of her prolific, insightful, and lovely poetic histories.

Number of Pages: 
163

A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain

A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain

Kendra Donovan is a young FBI agent just beginning her career. But when a mission goes bad and many members of her team are killed by a traitor, she's done following the rules. She refuses to accept that the US government would trust the man responsible to bring them intel and takes justice into her own hands. While tracking him down, Kendra makes a fall through time and ends up working in a castle until she can understand what has happened. Everything changes when a young woman shows up dead there too and Kendra must break the gender and class boundaries of the time to use her 21st century thinking to find a killer.

Number of Pages: 
498

The Gilded Cage by Lucinda Gray

The Gilded Cage by Lucinda Gray

Katherine and her brother have grown up working a farm in Virginia, but after an estranged relative dies and leaves the two a fortune, they have to begin a new life in England. Switched from farmgirl to lady, Katherine has trouble relating to anyone in her new life, except the servants and her brother. But when a mysterious accident takes him away from her, Katherine's new life seems much more dangerous than the old. No one believes her, and without any allies, Katherine is soon alone, looking for someone to turn to. Will she be able to find her brother's killer and save herself, or is it already too late?

Number of Pages: 
245

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Lee is the only daughter in a loving family. Her father is often ill and she pulls a lot of weight keeping her family's farm running and supplementing their income with gold she has found using her magical ability to sense it. That is the one fantastical element in what is otherwise an adventure story set in the Gold Rush era. Very early on Lee's parents are murdered and it becomes clear that they confided about Lee's magical ability to someone who is now determined to control her. Lee disguises herself as a boy and hits the road, intending to sign on with a wagon train heading west to California. Her best friend Jefferson has gone ahead of her to escape his abusive father and she hopes to catch up with him. There is a bit of potential love interest there but it's not clear how much they actually like each other and how much it is convenient. This book was not what I expected, given Carson's previous trilogy, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. The pace is kind of slow and meandering but I loved reading about the logistics of traveling West and there are some great characters and moments of suspense.

Number of Pages: 
432

The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Hired Girl is the first Young Adult book I've read in a long time--I thought the writing was a good combination of accessible and complex.  When the story begins, our 14 year old heroine, Joan, is barely enduring a harsh life on the farm with her unforgiving father and thankless brothers.  Her mother has passed away, leaving a heavy load on Joan's shoulders and a huge hole in her life.  Due to the demands of farm life, and her father, she has to quit school, which had been her last comfort.  Sound bleak?  Yes, I was wondering when her luck would change for the better, which it certainly does when she flees the only life she's ever known, and strikes out on her own for the big city.  There she is fortunate to come across the right person at the right time, a young Jewish boy who sees (as Joan would describe it) a damsel in distress, and offers to help.  His family not only takes her in for the night, but offers her a job as a hired girl.  There's still an awful lot of drudgery--cleaning, cooking (plus the intricacies of preparing kosher food), and dealing with Malka, the older, temperamental housekeeper.  But there are also new possibilities for her and even occasional fun to be had.  Mr. Rosenbach, the patriarch of the house, allows Joan to use his library, and with her little time off, she is free to go to church or even shopping.  And there's the heartthrob younger brother in the family as well . . .

The book is in journal format, so there's plenty of daydreaming on the part of our romantically inclined main character.  She's a deep thinker though too, and it's fun to follow her as she takes in new points of view, and forms various rivalries and alliances.  Joan writes often and recreates conversations with every member of the household, from philosophical and religious explorations with Mr. Rosenbach, to girlish gossiping with 12 year old Mimi.  Though she is certainly not a member of the family, and often confined to the kitchen, Joan experiences a suprisingly vast new world, emotionally and intellectually.  She goes through many a blunder (as anyone her age will!) but her hard work and courage pay off.  The author does a good job of showing how more opportunities were becoming available for many different people in early twentieth century America.  It's inspiring and satisfying to watch this hired girl's life transform.

Number of Pages: 
387

These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker

These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker

Evelyn's mother's plan is for her to spend her time attending balls, searching for eligible young men. Evelyn is bored with that life, and spends as much time as possible volunteering as a nurse's assistant with her sister Rosamund. But when Rose disappears, Evelyn's parents believe she has merely run away, and refuse to look for her. Evelyn knows that something must be wrong, and begins investigating. With the sometimes-help of two gentlemen, Evelyn searches for her sister and learns more about the reasons for her disappearance, and more about herself.

Number of Pages: 
298

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

Russell rewrites the story of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp in Doc and tries to spotlight their true biography rather than their legend. While this makes for a very interesting spin on these larger than life characters, I felt like the plot took a backseat to the character building in the book. Usually that is okay with me, because I like character development. But, in this case, my expectation was that there would be a rootin' tootin' shoot out at the end and that it would be fun to read a western with all of the trimmings. Alas, that is not what this book is about. But please read this if you are a fan of this era  in American history and want an intelligent treatment of classic American characters. (And don't require a shoot out.)

Number of Pages: 
394