Review: Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden

Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden

Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden (9781681198071)

Set in the 1880s, this novel explores the world if Essie, a young African-American woman who grew up with a neglectful mother and was rescued from poverty and prostitution by a kindly cleaning woman. Determined to keep learning even though she left school at an early age, Essie continued to read everything she could get her hands on. While working at a boarding house, Essie meets Dorcas Vashon, a wealthy African-American woman who sees potential in Essie and offers her a way to transform her life. Taught etiquette and new manners by Dorcas over several grueling months, Essie becomes Victoria and takes on the persona of Dorcas’ niece. As Victoria enters the social elite in Washington, D.C. she must hold to the lie that she is living until she can’t manage it any longer.

Bolden captures a period in American history that is rarely seen in books, much less teen novels. It is the period after Restoration gave African-Americans new rights but before the Jim Crow laws came stripped them away. It is a dazzling time to be a member of society and Bolden gives us details about the books, the manners and the dresses that make up that world. The setting of Washington, D. C. society is beautifully depicted as well.

Essie/Victoria makes for a wonderful set of eyes to view this world through. While she is taken with her new lifestyle and the opportunities it brings, Essie wrestles with the lies she must tell to keep it that way. Her strength of character is particularly evident when she is pressed such as learning etiquette and at the end of the book when she must make a moral decision. It is then that Essie fully steps into her own.

A fascinating look at a neglected piece of American history. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi (9781250144546)

Set in 1889 Paris, this teen novel mixes historical fiction with fantasy into one incredible adventure. Severin was denied his inheritance by the Order, a group of wealthy and powerful Houses that control the French Babel fragment and therefore the power to forge amazing devices. So Severin has become a thief who hides in plain sight in his hotel with his group of fellow thieves and friends around him. Each of his friends has their own distinct skill set that is invaluable when rescuing magical artifacts. Their expertise ranges from explosives to poisons to spiders to desire. As they start to seek out their largest target ever, it is an opportunity for Severin to regain his inheritance but it may just kill them all in the process.

Chokshi has written several amazing books and this one builds on her previous success. The setting here is particularly lush. Lovingly depicted, Paris comes to life just as the Eiffel Tower is being built for the Exposition Universelle. Paris is a great setting for the equally vibrant adventures the characters have there with traps, break ins, magical elements and more adding to the drama. That mixture of fantasy and history is forged together tightly into a unified whole.

This is a complex teen novel filled with engaging characters who all are distinct from one another and enticing to spend time with. She has included all sorts of diversity in her characters, including neurodiversity, bisexuality, and racial diversity. Each of these characteristics is a part of the story and plays into the plot, so they are far more than token notes and instead are rooted deeply in the characters.

A breathtaking adventure in a fantasy world, this first in a series will be appreciated by fans of Leigh Bardugo. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Wednesday Books.

 

Review: The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (9780062686206)

Boy has always been bullied and ignored in his village. He is different than the others with his humped back and ability to communicate with animals. When Secondus, a pilgrim searching for relics of Saint Peter, first notices Boy’s climbing ability, he decides to take him along on his journey for a few days. As Boy proves his usefulness and also realizes that he feels accepted for the first time in his life, Boy insists on continuing to help Secondus in his pilgrimage. But they aren’t really rescuing the relics of Saint Peter, they are stealing them in the hopes of getting Secondus into heaven. As their travels continue, they grow more and more perilous. Boy begins to figure out where he came from and realize that though he isn’t a regular boy he may be something all the more special.

I’ve heard so much glowing praise for this book and I thought I had tried to read it earlier in the year, but I got it mixed around with another book. So many books! When I started this, I was immediately swept into the medieval world that Murdock has created. She doesn’t shy away from the filth, the pestilence, and the violence of this world. Yet she also weaves a rich mystical Christianity into the novel that lifts it up out of the reality and into something more.

The two main characters could not be more different from one another, so their unique friendship is all the more rewarding as it emerges. Boy is open and honest to a fault, often failing to understand the nuances of what is happening around him. Secondus is filled with secrets and guilt. Both of their full stories are shared and they serve as two sides of a coin.

A fascinating look at medieval religion, pilgrimage and life, this book is rich and rewarding. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Greenwillow Books.

 

Review: All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins

All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins

All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (9780399554193)

Based on the series by Sydney Taylor, this new picture book gives a warm look at a beloved family celebrating Hanukkah. Set in New York City in 1912, both fans and new readers alike will find themselves immersed in this family of five girls, all of a kind. Gertie, the youngest of the five girls, knows about latkes but can’t remember what they taste like since Mama only makes them on Hanukkah. All of the girls help Mama make the meal except for Gertie who is too little to help. The potato peeler is too sharp, the onions make you cry, the shredder is even sharper than the peeler, and the grease in the pan could burn. When Gertie discovers there isn’t a job she can do, she throws a tantrum and is sent to her room. It isn’t until Papa comes home that Gertie gets her own special job, lighting the menorah’s first candle.

I adored this series as a child, loving the depiction of an immigrant family. I’m so pleased to see it return in a new format that brings the stories to a new generation in need of positive immigrant tales. As always, this family is filled with warmth and the picture book just like the series focuses on small moments in a family’s life that speak to their values, their deep love for one another, and their customs. The writing here is deft and focused just right for the picture book format without losing any of that special “All-of-a-Kind” feeling.

Zelinsky’s illustrations carry that same warm feeling. Done in rich colors, the pages are full of the bustling family working together in the kitchen. Even Gertie’s time alone in the bedroom under the bed has warm wood tones. The final pages of the book are all the more rich and warm as the family comes together for the meal with the lit menorah.

Exactly what our world needs right now, a celebration of immigrants and faith. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Review: Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (9780823439607)

After Langston’s mother died, he and his father moved from rural Alabama to Chicago. Langston misses his mother and grandmother as well as their way of life in Alabama. In Chicago, it’s hard for him to make friends and lonely in the apartment when his father is gone. Even the food that his father provides is nothing like the skilled cooking of the women who raised him. But there is one part of Chicago that makes up for all of the changes. The public library branch in his neighborhood is not whites-only like the one in Alabama. Hiding from bullies after school, Langston soon discovers the beauty of poetry, particularly that written by a man with the same name, Langston Hughes.

Cline-Ransome is best known for her picture books and this is her first novel. The skilled writing here would never lead anyone to believe that this is a debut novel though. The prose has the flow and rhythm of poetry as it plays out on the page. The connection to Alabama is also strong in the prose, the way that Langston speaks and the way he sees the world. Somehow Cline-Ransome makes all of that clear in her writing alone.

Langston is a fascinating character living in a very interesting time in American history, the Great Migration when African Americans left the south and headed north to cities like Chicago. Langston’s love of reading and books is not only a way for him to find a home in the local library branch but also eventually a way for him to connect with peers over a love of the written word.

Skilled story telling and a strong protagonist make this book a very special piece of historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee (9780062795328)

In this sequel to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, the focus is on Felicity, Monty’s sister. Felicity desperately wants to become a doctor, but in 18th century England, women did not become doctors. Felicity tries again and again to gain entry to a medical education, but is rebuffed. She is forced to give up her job at a bakery because the kind man who owns it proposes marriage to her. Felicity is not interested in romance at all. When she learns that her childhood best friend is set to marry her medical idol, Felicity heads to Germany to attend the wedding. She is funded Sim, by a rather questionable companion, who poses as Felicity’s maid to gain entry into the same household but for unknown reasons. As things develop, there is another whirlwind adventure across continents in a quest that could be legendary.

Lee has a wonderful wit and humor in her writing. She tells this new tale with the same dance of sarcasm, historical detail and charm as her first book. It is a delight to see Felicity at the center of the novel, as she was a character readers will have loved in the first book but longed to know more about. The book takes place a year after the first ended, just enough time for the dust to settle on that adventure. Lee gives readers glimpses of Monty and Percy, but they do not overtake Felicity’s story.

As readers get to know Felicity better, they will realize that she is a person with no interest in romance or sex. Modern terms would describe her as asexual, but that term is not used in the book. Beautifully, that does not mean that she is cold or distant, rather that she is not interested in kissing or cuddling much and certainly has no designs on romantic futures with other characters. And yet, there is love in the book. Brotherly love, deep connections and real female friendships shine here.

A wonderful second book in an award-winning series, there is so much to adore on these pages. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older (9781338268812)

Magdalys Roca lives at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York during the year 1863. It is a different world than the one we know, with dinosaurs still roaming the earth. While on a field trip to see a theater performance, riots break out in New York City. Magdalys and her fellow orphans are caught in the situation. As she helps her fellow orphans survive, Magdalys discovers that she has a strange ability to communicate with the dinosaurs around her. Discovering that the orphanage has been destroyed in the riots, Magdalys and several other orphans are taken in by New York freedom fighters in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood where people of color have created a place of safety. Magdalys and her friends are soon involved in saving the other children from being taken into slavery.

Based loosely on real history, this novel has just enough historical reality to keep it grounded. Add in the dinosaurs and you have a wonderful novel of alternative history that will keep children enthralled. The pace is fast and becomes almost wild during fight and battle scenes. The children face real horrors of slavery, including a lynching, mobs of people intent of capturing or killing them, and a network of men working to send free people into bondage. The setting of a historical New York City is deftly woven into the story line as well.

It’s not often that you have children’s fantasy books that offer alternative takes on history. It is even more rare that those books have children of color as the main characters in the novel. Magdalys is a great heroine, full of bravery and a sense of purpose as she joins those trying to change the world. She is a natural leader though she views herself as a loner, something that others won’t allow her to be.

A rip-roaring read that will have children longing for a dactyl to ride. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Review: The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr (9781452159584)

When Grisha was a young dragon still learning of the dangers of the world, he is trapped by a magician into the shape of a teapot. He spends decades trapped in that form, decorating the rooms of the emperor and then joining the household of a small family. Luckily, the father of the family knows how to see magic and realizes what Grisha is. When Grisha is finally released from the spell, he is sent to Vienna to join the rest of the world’s dragons there. It is now after World War II and Grisha is one of the lucky dragons who still walks the streets of the city. He meets a very special little girl, Maggie, and they become close friends. But when Grisha starts to remember what happened to the other dragons, the two feel compelled to try to solve the puzzle and rescue the surviving dragons from the magic that binds them. But at what cost?

Weyr has written a very unique fantasy novel for children that is firmly grounded in the real city of Vienna and world history, but adds dragons and other magic as a vibrant layer on top of that foundation. The world building is cleverly done, meshing history and fantasy into something new and very special. The story is accompanied by illustrations done in black and white that are like small framed windows into the story.

The characters of Grisha and Maggie are compelling. Grisha is immediately fascinating partly because he is a dragon who isn’t quite sure of how a dragon should act. Maggie is a character who has grown up very lonely and then makes one of the best friends ever. Throughout the story there is an air of tragedy, of lost years, of forgotten tragedies. This melancholy only grows larger as the end of the book nears. I recommend having a few tissues on hand.

Beautiful, haunting and tragic, this is a special fantasy for young readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

Review: A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar (9781250154989)

Donut’s pops has passed away in an automobile accident and now her Aunt Agnes has come to stay in their small house in rural Vermont. Donut has grown up there, surrounded by the woods and all of the people she considers friends. There is Tiny, a huge boy with a big heart, who is her best friend. There is Sam, the man who taught her to do taxidermy and who creates displays for museums. It’s the place that Donut belongs, one where she can see her father in every part of their home and also her mother, whom she never knew. So when Aunt Agnes decides to take Donut back to Boston with her, Donut knows she must do everything she can to stay, even running away.

Kalmar has created a story with one heck of a heroine at its heart. Donut is unusual in so many ways, from her passion for rivers and geography to her taxidermy of small rodents and birds to her willingness to test out her father’s foldable boat. Donut is not one to shrink away from stating her mind or from taking action to support herself. Readers will immediately feel for Donut being taken away from her home, and in the end they too will be surprised at how Donut has grown and changed.

This historical fiction for middle grades is set in an interesting time period that we don’t see a lot of. It’s in rural Vermont around the 1920s. There is talk of bobbed hair, flappers and Prohibition. The setting of Vermont is fully realized in the book, particularly once Donut heads into the woods on her own. Then nature really emerges around her, beautiful and dangerous at once.

A strong piece of historical fiction, get this into the hands of readers who enjoy a strong protagonist, wilderness settings and cows. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Feiwel & Friends.