Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

by Ransom Riggs
First sentence: “I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.”
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Content: There’s a few swear words and general creepiness. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) because that’s where adults want to find it, but I wouldn’t be adverse to giving it to a 7th or 8th grader.

I read this one by request of one of my fellow booksellers; she’d picked it for her summer teen book group and couldn’t make a session. So, I’m filling in.

I know the rest of the world has read this already, so I’ll spare much of the plot. I’ll just say that Jacob has grown up on his grandfather’s stories of the boarding school he stayed at in England during World War II. They weren’t normal stories, and the other children weren’t normal children. But Jacob thought that’s all they were: stories. That is, until his grandfather ends up dead in his garden, Jacob feels like he’s slowly going insane. So, he heads off to this island off the coast of Wales (or some place sufficiently secluded and broody and English-y) to find out the truth for himself.

Yes, the format was clever. Riggs intersperses (real) creepy, weird, old photographs and it’s quite unique how he incorporates the pictures. But, that’s all it was: clever. I never got past the whole “I’m supposed to be loving this?” feeling. Maybe it’s too much hype. Or maybe it was his writing. Or maybe it was just the mood I’ve been in, but this one fell flat.

On the other hand, that might make for more interesting discussion at the book group….


Black Dove, White Raven

by Elizabeth Wein
First sentence: “Sinidu told me I should aim for the sun.”
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Content: There’s a smattering of violence, and some insinuations, but it’s not nearly as intense as Wein’s other books we have in the store. I’m torn between leaving it where it is (in Teen, grades 9+) and moving it to YA (grades 6-8), where it really fits better, subject and content-wise. Thoughts?

I know Wein has written other books about Ethiopia, but I didn’t know they existed, really, until this one came out and I started hearing the buzz. And so I really didn’t know what to expect with this one.

Many of the elements I have enjoyed about Wein are there: women pilots, in this case two: a white woman, Rhoda, and her black friend, Delia,  learned to fly in France and go around the States in the late 1920s/early 1930s with their barnstorming act. There is also World War II: after Delia’s accidental death, Rhoda takes their two children, her daughter Emelia and Delia’s son Teo (whom Rhoda has taken as her own) to live in Ethiopia, which was Delia’s dream.

The book is a long letter written to the emperor of Ethiopa by Emelia. It’s in the middle of World War II, and the Italians have invaded Ethiopia. Because of their precarious legal situation: Teo is not legally Rhoda’s son, they’re not really legally in the country, and because Teo’s father was Ethiopian, it means that their position in the country, especially with the Italians there, is a precarious one.

Emelia recounts history and how their little family ended up where they are. Teo contributes some, writing journal entries and flight logs — Rhoda eventually teaches both children to fly — and so you hear his voice as well as Emelia’s.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and yet, I felt like the conflict didn’t really pick up until the last third. It’s a quieter book than her previous two WWII books, one that felt more vignette-driven as well. (Though typing that, and thinking back to Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, I’m not sure that’s true.) The characters were definitely younger in this one, and perhaps that’s what I’m feeling. I did like how Wein rounded out most of the characters in the book, but especially the female ones (the male ones, aside from Teo, were basically set dressing, there to move the plot along). Wein also touched on a lot of cultural issues for the time: segregation in the US, slavery in Ethiopia, the war, the limitations of women at the time. Even though it didn’t feel like much, plot-wise, there was enough to hold my interest and carry the book.

I’m not sure I love it as much as I do the other books I’ve read by Wein, but I did thoroughly enjoy it.

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr
First sentence: “At dusk they pour from the sky.”
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Content: There is some graphic (read: Nazi) violence and about a half-dozen f-bombs. It’s not a difficult read, even for it’s length, and if there’s a teen interested in WWII, it would be a good one to give. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’ve kind of been avoiding this one. It was a slow build, but eventually EVERYONE was reading this. And we all know how much I love reading books that everyone is reading. (Not.) At least when it comes to adult books, anyway. I just don’t trust Everyone. (No interest in Gone Girl. Or The Girl on the Train. At. All.)

But this was picked for my in-person book group, and so I was kind of obligated to read it. I didn’t go in expecting much of anything, so I was pleasantly surprised when the chapters were short. And the story was engaging. And that the 500+ page book wasn’t one that was going to bog me down.

In fact, if I dare say this: I enjoyed it. Immensely.

This is, at its simplest, the story of two kids, a blind French girl and an orphan German boy, during World War II. Werner, the boy, is an orphan resigned to growing up in this mining town, working the mines, even though he’s a technical genius. Then, he gets drafted into the German Army, which in 1939 isn’t the happiest place. Marie-Laure is a French girl, living in Paris, with her father who works at the Museum of Natural History. When the Germans invade, they end up in Saint-Malo with Marie-Laure’s great-uncle Etienne. Then her father gets called back to Paris and goes “missing”. Their stories meet, finally, in August 1944, when the town of Saint-Malo is set on fire.

The story, however, is immaterial in this book. No, what’s important, I think are the characters. They way they interconnect with each other, with themselves. And the little acts of goodness — of light — that thread throughout the book. It’s a very dark time, World War II, but this is an incredibly hopeful book. Its short chapters are lyrical and evocative, and the suspense building up to August 1944 — every section or so, Doerr gives us a glimpse of what is happening — is palpable.

My only real complaint is that I could have done without the two epilogues, one in 1974 and the other in 2014. I felt no need to know what the characters were up to after the story ended, and it felt forced and not nearly as emotional as the rest of the book. But that’s a small complaint in the wake of the story.

The Calligrapher’s Daughter

by Eugenia Kim
First sentence: “I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.”
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Content: It’s pretty long and involved, and some off-screen sex (both married and extra-marital). It’d be in the adult section of the bookstore.

Najin Han was born in 1910, soon after the Japanese invasion (I suppose) of Korea.The daughter of a talented calligrapher, she was supposed to be raised in the traditional manner: to be a servant to men, without the education or opportunities men have.

But, because her mother was Christian, and because Najin was curious, she ended up having more opportunities than she “should” have. She went to school, learned both English and Japanese.She spent time in the exiled court (thanks to some terrific maneuvering from her mother and a well-placed aunt). She got trained to be a teacher and a midwife. So when her husband — an arranged marriage, of course — goes to America for theological training and she gets stuck in Korea, she has Options.

Based on her parent’s lives, Kim writes a fascinating story about life in early-20th century Korea. There was much I didn’t know, from the way the Japanese took over the Korean culture, trying to suppress it to the fact that Christianity was in Korea fairly early on.

I enjoyed reading this one, though there were times that I skimmed — I didn’t care when Kim switched into other points of view; Najin’s story was the one I was most interested in — but for the most part I found this to be a fascinating portrait of a country and time we don’t hear much about.

Arcady’s Goal

by Eugene Yelchin
First sentence: “I’m a risk taker.”
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Arcady is the best soccer player. Period. So much so, that when the inspectors of the home he’s been placed in come, the director makes a show out of Arcady’s skills. He — Arcady calls him Butterball — puts Arcady up against increasingly larger players, expecting him to beat them. And he does.

But, when one inspector, who’s not quite like the others, comes to visit, Arcady ends up being adopted. Which is not something Arcady bargained on. Nor he he bargain that his new father, Ivan Ivanovich, comes with secrets of his own.

One of the things Yelchin does best is humanize Stalin’s Russia. It’s so easy to push everything from that era off into Things/People were Bad. And Stalin put everyone in concentration camps. But, Yelchin gives us the stories of the children — Arcady ended up in a home because his parents were taken for being enemies of the state — and how Stalin’s policies affected everyday life. They’re simple stories, but they paint a picture of a people who were wronged — even if they weren’t taken — by their leader.

It’s a simple little book, full of illustrations. And there’s a lot of talk about soccer, so there’s an appeal for the soccer lovers. But mostly it’s a portrait of a relationship between to damaged people, and the path to healing.

Graphic Novel Round-Up, November 2014

I spent a Saturday recently just reading graphic novels to help me out of the slump. I think it might have worked; I feel much more interested in reading a full-length book now. Also, both A and K picked some of these up and found themselves completely engrossed. So, it’s a good batch.

Odd Duck
by Ceci Castellucci and Sara Varon
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Content: There’s nothing. And the words/ideas are pretty simple. It’s good for reluctant readers as wel as those who just want a good, short story. It’d be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Theodora is an ordinary duck. She does her ordinary duck exercises in the morning, goes for her ordinary duck walk (because she doesn’t like to fly), and reads ordinary duck books in the afternoon. She lives a nice, quiet life and is very happy.

That is, until Chad moves in next door. Chad is not an ordinary bird. He does not do his exercises in an ordinary way (if at all), He dyes his feathers weird colors. He does art (gasp)! Theodora is not happy. But then, come winter, she and Chad bond (because they don’t fly south). They discover that they have things in common, and that they really enjoy each other’s company. And that maybe being different isn’t so bad.

It’s a charming little graphic novel, full of adorable art and sweet little lessons, but it’s never heavy-handed or didactic. Perfect for younger and reluctant readers.

Monster on the Hill
by Rob Harrell
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Content: Linguistically, it’s more challenging. But it’s probably on par with the Amulet books, which means it’s probably good for 3rd grade and up. Content-wise, there’s some monster violence, but that’s it. It’d be in the middle grade graphic noel section of the bookstore.

In this version of 1860s England, there are monsters that terrorize every town. But never fear: that’s what the townspeople want. (Seriously.) But, in Stoker-on-Avon, they have a problem: their monster, Raymond, doesn’t do anything but moan and complain. It’s bringing the town down. So, the town leaders send the eccentric Dr. Charles Wilkie (and a street urchin, Timothy, hitches along for the ride) to convince Raymond to buck up and do his job.

This leads to a road trip, a lot of bonding, some lessons learned, and a giant battle against an unstoppable foe before everything is set to rights again.

This one had me eating out of the palm of its hand. I loved Raymond — he was delightfully pathetic — and his schoolmate, Noodles (aka Tentaculor) and their relationship. There was so much that had me just laughing out loud. True, there could have been a female character (just one? Please?)  or perhaps some diversity (though it was England in 1860-something), but for the most part, I found this simply charming.

by Loïc Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, and Greg Salsedo
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Content: It’s about the Holocaust, so there will definitely be things to discuss. It glosses over the worst of the horrors; there’s a passing image of a concentration camp survivor, as well as illusions to other horrors. Even so, it’s very kid-appropriate. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This one is your standard Holocaust fare. Mostly. Framed as a story a grandmother is telling her granddaughter about the time when she was a child, Dauvillier focuses mostly on the Resistance and the people in France who helped those who were Jews get away.

It’s a very tender story of a young girl, Dounia (the grandma) whose parents were taken to the concentration camps in 1942, near the end of the war. Even though Dounia hides during the inital raid, the neighbors (some of whom are part of the reistance), know they’ll be back, looking for her. So, they arrange for her to live with a woman in the country. In the act of escaping, the neighbor’s husband is caught, though he’s only arrested and released. He manages to find his way back to his wife and Dounia. Her main concern, though, is finding her parents again and so they keep looking, especially once France is liberated. Eventually, they do find her mother, and the story ends.

I liked this one well enough, but (possibly because it’s tamed down a bit) it lacks the emotional punch that other Holocaust books have. Still, it’s a good introduction to the topic.

The Port Chicago 50

by Steve Sheinkin
First sentence: “He was gathering dirty laundry when the bombs started falling.”
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Content: There’s some disturbing moments, not only violence, but also racism. I was made uncomfortable by it (which I think was the point). There is also about four censored f-bombs. Sheinkin is masterful at simplifying data  without being simplistic, so I think this is suitable for 5th grade on up. It’s in the Middle Grade History section at the bookstore.

During the summer of 1944, on a little-known port in the San Francisco Bay where Navy ships were loaded with ammunition, an enormous explosion happened. So large that it killed more than 300 men were killed, the pier and the docked ship were obliterated, and men in the barracks were injured, some severely.

It sounds like a tragedy, but nothing too serious. Except for this fact: of the 320 men who were killed, 202 of them were African American men who had signed up for the Navy and had been relegated to the dangerous job of loading the ammunition. The way the Navy worked in 1944 was that the white men got to serve on the ships; the black ones were segregated out and assigned the menial tasks the white sailors didn’t want.

But it gets better. The men who survived the blast were shuttled to a nearby port, and even though they were suffering trauma from the blast (who wouldn’t be), the were ordered to go back to loading the ships. Fifty sailors flat out refused orders. So they were put on trial for mutiny. And convicted. Even though there was never any plot to defy their superiors or take over the base. They just were tired of being treated differently than the white sailors and wanted to know why.

Some good came out of this: because the Secretary of the Navy was a (mostly) reasonable man (and because Eleanor Roosevelt got involved) the Navy (and soon after the rest of the military) was one of the first places that was desegregated in the country.  But, was the price of being convicted mutineers and spending 16 months in jail too high?

Sheinkin doesn’t whitewash anything that happened during those months and years surrounding the Port Chicago 50 trial. He lets the Naval officers stand for themselves (and any reasonable person would see that they were IDIOTS. Or maybe that was just me), and lets the trial transcripts stand for themselves. Thurgood Marshall even got involved, trying to get the government and the military (the officers of which come off as a bunch of racists; I was going to use a stronger word, but changed my mind) to exonerate these men for being human. Sheinkin pointed out that this was the first event on the long path of the Civil Rights movement, which was something I didn’t know, and something we don’t often remember in history books.

It’s extremely well-written and as intriguing as Sheinkin’s other works. He’s a masterful history writer, and knows just how to make things interesting and informative without being dry.