historical-fiction

Review: Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

9780399175411_OutrunTheMoon_BOM.indd “No, the key to wealth was opportunity. And if opportunity didn’t come knocking than Mrs. Lowry says you must build your own door.”

Outrun The Moon is author Stacey Lee’s second book, and it is just as stunning and well-researched as her debut, Under a Painted Sky (which I reviewed here).

Set in San Francisco in 1906, Outrun the Moon details the journey of Mercy Wong, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Chinatown. Mercy is a US citizen, although her parents are not, and her family and friends live and thrive within the confines of Chinatown’s industry. Mercy’s father is a launderer, and her mother is a well-respected fortune teller. Mercy also lives with her younger brother, Jack, whose weak lungs keep him from running and playing as other children might. Aided by the medicine of their neighbor, Ah-Suk, Jack’s health remains in check.

Mercy is smitten with her longtime friend, Tom. Tom is Ah-Suk’s son and is expected to take over the family trade. However, Tom has dreams of flying, and he has even crafted a hot air balloon. Similarly, Mercy has dreams that would take her outside of Chinatown: she wants to run a successful business.

Mercy is an intelligent narrator who, despite her modern ways of thinking when it comes to business and the role of the female, deeply respects her upbringing and Chinese traditions. She has a dislike of the unlucky number four, and she frequently uses her mother’s body-mapping techniques to discern qualities in individuals. For example, Mercy’s high cheekbones (sometimes referred to as “bossy cheeks”) denote an assertive nature. I found this mixture of modern thinking and respect for tradition to be incredibly refreshing and interesting to read. Mercy is also witty and quick to act, and I would happily read another book narrated by her.

Mercy Wong knows that she needs to further her education if she wants to make a name for herself in the business world, and so she strikes a deal with the wealthy Du Lac family. Chocolatiers by trade, Mr. Du Lac also serves on the board of St. Clare’s School for Girls, one of the most exclusive private schools. An elaborate ruse is concocted, and Mercy is granted a trial period at the school where she must pretend she is a Chinese heiress.

Being the first non-white person at the school, Mercy garners a lot of attention – not all of it favorable. Soon after settling in, however, disaster strikes: the historic earthquake of April 18, 1906 sends San Francisco into turmoil, and the girls of St. Clare’s have to put aside their differences to survive.

Outrun the  Moon features a cast of unique and likable characters, each with their own flaws and inner battles. From enemies, to friends, to grumpy headmistresses, Mercy deals with them all. Reduced to living in a park together after the earthquake, the girls’ true natures come to light.

Although Lee takes some liberties with historical accuracy (she changes the time that the earthquake hit Chinatown, among a few other things that she mentions in an author’s note), I found Outrun the Moon to be a wonderful glimpse into a time period and a culture that I am not entirely familiar with. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was a history lesson reduced to one class when I was in school, and I never stopped to think about the myriad of ways that people were affected and what this tragedy meant to the city. Between this book and Under a Painted Sky, Lee has single-handedly made me want to research periods in history to learn more. Anyone who can do that outside of a classroom is doing something right!

I want to thank Stacey Lee for providing me with an advanced copy of Outrun The Moon in exchange for an honest review. The book was released in May by GP Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, and I cannot recommend it enough. Go – read – and fall in love with a time and a place.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton

fullcicadamoon At 400 pages, Marilyn Hilton’s Full Cicada Moon may look intimidating to YA readers, but this coming-of-age story is a novel-in-verse, and the pages fly by. Similar to Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, the protagonist of Full Cicada Moon is a young female contemplating her identity and role in an environment that is less-than-welcoming.

Mimi Yoshiko Oliver is entering the seventh grade in 1969. She has just moved from a progressive town in California to a small town in Vermont because her father has accepted a teaching position at a college.

Mimi’s mother is Japanese and honors all of the culture’s traditions. The New Year’s festivities feature prominently in the beginning and end of the story. Mimi’s father is African American. He is very proud of his family and works hard to make sure they feel comfortable and secure.

Mimi and her family face racism in both outright and more subtle ways throughout the book. In this prominently-white town, Mimi has to deal with being a minority: half-Japanese, half-African American. On her first day of school she is asked, “What are you?” The friends she makes – as sweet as they are – are not allowed to invite her over to their houses. Mimi’s confusion and hurt is apparent in her thoughts, translated so brilliantly into verse.

Some readers may be worried that they won’t connect to a character in a novel told in verse, but Mimi is complex, rich, and a joy to read about. She has dreams of becoming an astronaut, and she follows along on television with the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. She is encouraged by her science teacher to study this subject, despite the students who have laughed at her dreams.

Mimi questions the school’s rule that dictates that female students must take home economics classes and male students must take woodshop. What about boys, like her neighbor, Tim, who want to learn how to cook? Mimi already knows how to make a cake from her mother; she’d like to learn to make a bookshelf. This subject addresses gender roles in an accessible way for younger readers while also offering readers a glimpse into another time, when girls couldn’t wear blue jeans and there weren’t a myriad of school electives to choose from.

At the heart of Full Cicada Moon is Mimi’s journey towards self-acceptance and understanding. While I would love to read more prose novels about this period in time and these issues, I think this is a great introduction to a time in history for young readers.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

paintedsky Under a Painted Sky is the exciting debut novel by Stacey Lee. Released in March 2015 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, Under a Painted Sky shakes up the YA historical fiction genre by placing two unlikely protagonists in the spotlight: a Chinese musician and an African American hired hand on the run on the Oregon Trail. The kicker? Both of these protagonists are young women, and must disguise themselves as men to avoid being caught. Will the cowboys who take them under their wing uncover their secrets, or will these two heroines make it to California scot-free?

It’s 1849 in Missouri, and Samantha has had a fight with her father. She longs to move back to New York City, where there is a larger community of Chinese immigrants. In Missouri, they stick out like a sore thumb. Her father has lofty ideas about moving out to California, and gives Samantha’s mother’s jade bracelet – the last remnant of her mother’s memory – to a colleague to ensure its safekeeping on the journey there.

In a grotesque turn of events, Samantha is left orphaned, and an act of self-defense has her fleeing for her life. She escapes with the help of Annamae, a runaway slave who longs to find her older brother at Hope Falls, a destination that may or may not exist. The two young women decide early on that they have enough attention on them because of their race; they don’t need their sex dragging them down, too.

So Samantha and Annamae become Sammy and Andy, disguising their feminine characteristics and mannerisms as best they can. Sammy has dreams of meeting her father’s colleague somewhere on the trail, and Andy hopes to reconnect with her brother. Early on they fall into the company of three genuine cowboys – West, Peety, and Cay – and though there’s some resistance on the three young men’s part, they decide to take the inexperienced Sammy and Andy under their wing and teach them how to survive on the trail.

Lee has done her research, and the Oregon Trail really came alive for me here. No longer did I see the trail as only pixels in a(n amazing) computer game; the scenery became treacherous and dusty and startlingly beautiful in my mind. The sensory details in Under a Painted Sky are gorgeous and vivid; I could taste the food cooked over a campfire, and smell the warm scent of the horses. Everything feels gritty: the dirt Sammy and Andy cake their faces in, the rough fibers of rope. Aside from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, this is the first Western I’ve ever read, and it piqued my interest enough to look further into the genre.

The racial diversity of the characters added another rich dimension to this story. Sammy is seen as an oddity on the trail, and her Chinese ancestry makes her “mysterious” to her fellow travelers. And while she may be able to excuse certain slip-ups by referencing fake Chinese curses or beliefs (cowboys will fall for anything), you can tell that Sammy is proud of her heritage. The same can be said for Andy. While she resents her place in the hierarchy, she remains a courageous, spirited young woman who stays strong in her beliefs.

From gunfights, to stampedes, to wild weather, the action in this book does not stop for a second. At the heart of this story, however, is the friendship between Sammy and Andy. Both alone in their own way, they learn to trust each other and to rely on one another, and the story of their blossoming friendship is one of my favorites this year.

I received an e-galley of Under a Painted Sky for review, courtesy of NetGalley. Thanks for always supplying me with interesting reads!

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Shatter Me Series by Tahereh Mafi

Shatter Me coverAt first glance, Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me series looks like your typical dystopian young adult novel. The world is in ruins, there is a totalitarian regime, people are starving, and our lead character has been locked up in an asylum for almost a year.

Tahereh Mafi’s writing is beautiful, poetic, stream of consciousness, full of nature metaphors and personifications. This makes sense because of her narrator’s somewhat shattered mind – she’s been a prisoner for 264 days without human contact. We know nothing about her in the beginning, for several chapters not even her name. Piece by piece, bit by bit we learn more about everyone.

Juliette is in the asylum because there is something very wrong with her. She can’t be touched without hurting other people. Her skin is lethal. She ends up leaving the asylum, intended by the regime’s dictator’s son to be used as a weapon. But the soldier, Adam, who is tasked with watching her is someone from her past. And he wants to help.

The first book is exciting, full of dramatic twists and action that had me turning page after page. It did wrap up very much like any other YA novel, so I was hesitant when I decided to continue reading the series.

And oh my goodness, I was so annoyed with Juliette during the beginning of the second book, Unravel Me. She was so WHINEY. I wanted to close the book and stop reading at times, but something kept me going. One of the secondary characters, the hilarious Kenji, actually repeatedly called Juliette out on how self-pitying she was being, and how her life seemed only to revolve around her boyfriend. Wow, I thought. That’s a remarkably astute and meta observation from the author. Usually in these types of books, the authors are unaware of their cliches. What game are you playing, Tahereh Mafi?

By the end of the second book, I was floored. Juliette had done a complete 180, believable because of the events of the book. Also, that fragmented poetic stream of consciousness sort of writing I mentioned before? While Juliette still thinks of beautiful metaphors for things, her thinking and narration become a lot more sensible and comprehensible as we reach the third book. It’s like she’s finally reassembled herself as much as she can.

The third book, Ignite Me, is what makes this series worth the read. It completely subverts so many of the typical, tired tropes you see in female-protagonist, dystopian young adult fiction. Juliette ends up as a tremendously brave character, who does things for herself and has a strong moral compass. At the same time, she ends up not being scared to make the hard decisions. And the secondary characters shine. I hesitate to write anymore because I don’t want to give it away! I’m just very happy with the way things turned out.

Admittedly, there were still a few bumps and snags in the series. But I think the uniqueness of how this series switches up the usual status quo of dystopian novels makes it well worth the read. Along with Tahereh Mafi’s gift with words and beautiful metaphors.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at Brilliant Buckets.

Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life after life by kate atkinson“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

Snow is falling in 1910 and Ursula Todd comes into the world, born to a wealthy English family. She dies, strangled by her umbilical cord. Snow is falling again, on that very same night, and Ursula Todd is born again, and this time, lives to tell the tale. From here, she starts upon a life full of peculiarity. She’s disturbed by the sense of the future calling to her, and the past, all at once – and in her mind she can almost see snow falling in the darkness. Life After Life tells the tales of Ursula’s many lives and the tiny choices and circumstances that change each one.

Each time Ursula dies, she begins again from that cold, snowy night. Her collage of lives are set in England, against the backdrops of two World Wars. Her father goes off to fight in World War I, but Ursula stays home to face all the perils that can claim a child prematurely – a fall off a roof, the pull of a strong tide, the fever of influenza. Once she learns how to defeat each bogeyman, her life can continue on.

It’s an interesting concept. Wouldn’t we all love the chance to start our lives from the beginning, with the knowledge we have now, so that we can right all of the wrongs? Ursula only has hazy echoes, feelings of deja vu, knowledge of tiny details that she shouldn’t seem to have. But each choice she makes has the power to change her life entirely. It’s not about getting it right so much as all the possible paths one life can have. Different choices don’t always have better consequences. Life After Life is more about how lives are weaved together and into the fabric of history. How our humanity makes us or breaks us through the mundane and the extraordinary.

Throughout her lives, Ursula is a precocious child, a student, a wife, a mother, a war secretary, a sister. Ursula’s family provide strong, usually constant elements to her ever-changing lives. Ursula’s mother has the the sharp indifference of one used to the grandeur of England’s old imperial days, while Ursula’s father tends to be a bit detached and bemused by everything. Mrs. Glover, the grouchy family cook, and Bridget, the bumbling maid, make for a very Downton Abbey feel. Her aunt Izzie is a free-spirited lush and socialite, who despite her selfishness often acts a refuge to Ursula. There’s her cruel older brother Maurice, her darling younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy, and her sister Pamela, who is both her best friend and voice of reason.

All of these characters became as intimate to me as my own family, as I watched them again and again through their repeated, differing lifetimes. I loved their ups and their downs. I worried incessantly for them – and cheered each time Ursula managed to triumph.

As for negatives – at first, I was very jarred by the book’s abrupt ending. But in reflecting and thinking about the novel, I’ve come to see it as a spectacular ending after all. It’s about what really matters – and learning to count your small victories as big ones. The pacing of the beginning is also a bit slow, but it offers a beautiful cultural and historical tour of pre-World War England.

Life After Life has stayed with me long after the final page. I think about Ursula and the choices she made in her lives, and her final choices, and the reasons behind them. I think about what I’d do if I had her gift (curse?) of hearing echoes of my past lives. It’s a curious idea. I definitely recommend this book to lovers of detailed historical fiction, and those of sci-fi concepts like this one.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at Brilliant Buckets.

Review: Brazen by Katherine Longshore

brazenBrazen is the newest novel by Katherine Longshore. It is a stand-alone novel, but when paired with Longshore’s Gilt and Tarnish, the reader will experience a lively, informative, and exciting portrait of the Tudor court.

Here’s a little history lesson from the official website of The British Monarchy: the Tudor period began in 1485 when Henry VII ruled, and continued all the way until 1603 with Elizabeth I. Henry VIII is potentially the most famous monarch of the time period, thanks to pop culture; he is notorious for changing religions and divorcing his first wife once he got bored of her – and finding his second wife, Anne Boleyn, guilty of treason. (Note: this is a general overview… I highly recommend reading up on this time period. So much drama!)

Brazen takes place between November of 1533 and October of 1536, during Henry VIII’s rule. The protagonist is Mary Howard, the submissive daughter of an ambitious father and a cold, shrewish mother. At the beginning of the novel, Mary is married to “Fitz,” or Henry Fitzroy, King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son (and his only male heir). Their marriage was arranged long before this, but they never really got to know each other. Mary is instantly attracted to him but feels very shy. On their wedding night they learn that they are forbidden to consummate their marriage until they’re older and more responsible. Mary feels relieved, but she’s also surprisingly disappointed. As the young couple learn more about each other and begin to have feelings for one another, this rule becomes harder to follow. I found this storyline to be fresh and interesting; normally an arranged marriage in a book means trouble or heartache.

The power dynamic and fragile friendship between Anne Boleyn and Mary became one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Mary is Anne’s cousin as well as one of the ladies of her court, and she becomes a sort of confidante for the queen. Mary begins to learn the difficulties of keeping secrets as relationships form and unravel. She watches as Anne struggles to keep her husband, the king, interested, while still trying to remain her own person.There is a strong theme of independence that follows the characters throughout the novel, although that independence means different things to different people.

Brazen is full of interesting supporting characters, each with their own traits and flaws. Mary’s best friends, Margaret and Madge, balance Mary out. Where Madge is flighty and flirtatious, Margaret is stoic and proper. The three friends communicate through writing poetry in a journal, which they pass around to convey secret messages. They are initially bonded after they make a running list of the qualities they look for in a man, which is hilarious and sweet and makes the story feel much more “contemporary.”

That’s one of the things I really loved about Brazen: Longshore is able to make the characters of a historical fiction novel feel like our modern-day friends. Her novels have been compared to “a more literary version of Gossip Girl,” and I think this makes the historical setting and characters a lot more accessible and easy to understand. For example, Hal, Mary’s sister, is a handsome, married poet who pines after Madge. Should he do the “right” thing and stay faithful to his wife – a woman he hardly knows? Should he follow his heart and fall into bed with Madge? These modern-day relationship problems are not so modern, as history tells us.

At over 500 pages, this may not be a read-in-one-day kind of book, but I certainly wanted it to be. The well-rounded characters, beautiful sentences, and dramatic suspense made this a page-turner for me. I was, as Booklist said about Longshore’s books, “royally riveted.”

Are you a fan of historical fiction? Share your favorites in the comments below!

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

inventionwingsWhen I was little, I loved the American Girl series, which followed girls who lived in different significant periods of American history. (Of course, there were also the expensive doll merchandise tied into all the books which my parents were no way going to buy for me when I had a zillion barbies already warring with my brother’s GI Joe action figures). It’s rare for me to find a American historical fiction novel that I love as much as I did those books.

Enter The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

The Invention of Wings follows two girls growing up on opposing sides of the mirror in slave-owning Charleston. There’s Sarah Grimke, the soft-spoken daughter of a prominent Charleston judge and plantation owner. And then there’s one of the family’s slaves, Hetty “Handful” Grimke.

On her eleventh birthday, Sarah is presented with Handful to be her own ladies’ slave. Under the eyes of southern ladies and amid ribbons and pastries, Handful and Sarah are reluctantly bound to each other. The book follows the next thirty-five years of their lives.

The author’s attention to each detail wonderfully transports us through time and space to life in the 1800s. We are able to follow all of Sarah, Handful, and the other Grimkes’ fascinating lives as they struggle to find their place and their peace within an unequal society. We can feel the sticky heat of the Charleston summers. We watch with Handful at the windows as she gazes out over the constant churning sea dreaming of freedom. We can hear the bustle of the hoop skirts in the street and thump of books as Sarah and Handful study reading in secret.

We see both of these women’s lives as they are tasked with very different paths that take them through growing up, finding romance, and finding their way through society’s expectations and what’s in their hearts. Sarah struggles first against her family, then society, and even herself as her words abandon her. Handful is fiery and struggles against the limits placed on her for the color of her skin and circumstance of her birth.

There is a strong background of second characters. Second characters who believe the story is about themselves, instead of Sara and Handful. There’s Handful’s ‘mauma’, Charlotte, a skilled seamstress who finds her freedom in small acts of rebellion. Thomas, Sarah’s brother who indulges her reading with all the sincerity of teaching a parrot tricks.

My only critique was that the book ended! I was surprised to learn that Sarah Grimke was a real person, and that she and her sister Angelina were pivotal speakers for the abolition movement and women’s suffrage, before suffrage was even on the radar. For a time, they were two of the most hated women in America for their speeches to both men and women. Susan Monk Kidd pieced together dialogue for her revived depictions from letters and accounts. The author expanded the life of Hetty, a slave the real Sarah Grimke was punished for secretly teaching how to read.

A big motif of the book is that Handful’s mother and grandmother, and Handful herself, all sew together quilts to narrate the story of their lives. And Sue Monk Kidd does the same with this novel, creating pictures out of her words for every stage of the Grimke women’s lives.

The book stays with you. It is quietly horrifying and tragic without being grotesque, as we watch what happens to the small fish who dare to swim against the current. It is a masterful view back into a time where the choice rested between doing what is easy and what is right.

After this, I really look forward to reading Sue Monk Kidd’s other famous works – The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at Brilliant Buckets.