Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Author: Brian Selznick
Rating:
Reading Level: 4th-6th

Pages: 533
Publisher: Scholastic
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

The superb and impeccable design gives me such pleasure that I feel like hugging this big fact block of a book every time I see it! Selznick’s cinamatic illustrations that take up most of the 533 pages, blend seamlessly with the crisp text and enigmatic storyline.

I like how Hugo’s plans do not always pan out the same ways he imagined — often they go wrong, but in a very realistic way. The adults intervene just the right amount so the situation never becomes hopeless without reducing the excitement generated by Hugo’s desparation and urgency. Of course, there are a lot of coincidences, following the Dickensian storytelling tradition.

A most wonderful offer!

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Weedflower

Author: Cynthia Kadohata
Rating:
Reading Level: 6th – 8th Grade

Pages: 260
Publisher: Atheneum (S&S)
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Kadohata’s strength lies in her quiet tone and close-up examination of the main characters’ thoughts and feelings. Weedflower is a perfect example. The readers are intimately familiar with every strand of emotion in Sumiko’s life but the full picture of the time in history is a bit foggy. The fate and experiences of Sumiko’s uncle and grandfather (in the prison camp) is also sketchy at the best. This is in keeping with Sumiko’s young girl perspective. There is no telling if Kadohata had opted to force other pieces of the historical puzzle into the telling, the result would have been a more diluted or intensified tale.

My personal issue with this book is my indifference to Sumiko. I don’t find her particularly inspiring or even likable. Her status as a social outcast seems more self-imposed than forced upon by others and her small triumphs did not stir much admiration in me. I felt impatience and displeasure, rather than empathy, for her. Maybe because she seems way too self-absorbed – which, once again, shows the author’s skill at portraying a realistic person without false glorification. But, I need that glorification. I need to see that she opens her eyes and understands more about what is affecting her people, and not just how miserable her own life is or what’s going in within her immediate environment.

Report from the field: Several people (of Japanese and general Asian descent are troubled by the cover. Their first reaction has been consistent: “No one at a Japanese-American Internment Camp would have worn a kimono! That is entirely inaccurate!” And besides, Sumiko never once wore a kimono throughout the entire story.

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Samurai Shortstop

Author: Alan Gratz
Rating:
Reading Level: 6th – 8th

Pages: 280
Publisher: Dial (Penguin Putnam)
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Every scene is necessary in this tightly written and thoroughly researched historical novel. The events unfold as the momentum gains and as Toyo’s self-understanding grows – subtly but with such forces that I could not put the book down. The opening scene of detailed Seppuku (suicide by cutting open one’s own stomach) ritual and some of the High School hazing methods are definitely not for the faint of heart. Yet this is not a book about violence, but about honor, loyalty, teamwork, inner strength, and physical strength, as well. All the necessary components of a successful baseball team.

To link the spirit of Bushido (Way of the Warriors) and baseball presents such a fresh look on the American’s National Pasttime that will inspire many young readers to think about the sport they love more deeply and meaningfully. This is an amazing and perfect book!

Note on Cultural Inaccuracies: My suspicion was confirmed by a Japanese friend that since Gratz is not Japanese, nor is he an expert in the Japanese language, some cultural inaccuracies occur in the book. The most glaring problem for me is the use of first names of anyone elder. It simply is not done — not then, and not even now in the 21st century. A son will never call his own father by the first name – no matter HOW much he detest his own father. When calling an upper classman, one will always use honorifics: -san and -sempai attached to either the first or last names; and when the younger students are addressed, the older ones might use -kun. These can be easily researched — even a simple google search or any entry level Japanese language text book can reveal the correct usage of these honorifics. Since it IS still an integral part of the Japanese culture, the ignoring of such practice shows a certain mentality from the author and the publisher. What a shame!

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July 2005 Reads

Howl’s Moving Castle
by Diana Wynne Jones

fantasy, highly recommended  (4th-7th)

I saw the Miyazaki animated feature film based on this favorite of mine and in between two viewings, I was compelled to quickly re-read Howl. I HAD to re-read it to affirm for myself that Jones’ tone is completely different from that of Miyazaki’s. I much prefer the book’s world… into which I would not mind falling — but I will AVOID the movie’s world at all cost…

Although both book and movie are finely crafted and powerful in their own ways… for some reason, I think the less overtly “anti-war” approach (in the book) commands a depth of human conflicts and the internal struggles of “darkness vs. light” that the movie did not seem to be able to convey convincingly.

So much wise humor, so much gentle and yet deep probing of the human hearts was lost in the movie version.


Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (HP VI)
by J.K. Rowling

fantasy, series, highly recommended (4th-6th)

Definitely one of the better volumes of the series. It is more tightly written, moves at a neck-breaking pace, draws this reader in and pins her down! There are even a couple of surprising elements/scenes. It has been a fun ride! Although many people say that this one is much DARKER than the rest, I still feel that there is quite a bit of hope and levity. Maybe because I like dark tales and this does not strike me as those that really get into the characters’ psyche in a disturbing way — those tales by Poe or Hawthorn… for example. It does not “disturb” my sense of security. It’s a very imaginative and well thought out yarn. I am pleased!


Saiyuki (vols. 5 – 8)
by Kazuya Minekura

fantasy, manga, graphic narrative, translation (7th and up)

The series remains explosive, intriguing, and GORGEOUS!!! Must keep on reading them….


The Story of the Treasure Seekers
by E. Nesbit

fantasy, classic (3rd-5th)

Umm… I could not finish this book… it got tedious after the first 6 or so chapters. I know that it would have been a really fun book for me as a child… but it seems so dated — the sensibilities just don’t ring true any more. (And I LOVE nostalgic stories.)


Namesake
by Jhumpa Lahiri

realistic fiction, adult

I found the events too mundane and the telling too tedious toward the end of the story… too many vignettes and descriptive passages. I also found having the death of the father inserted into the story is a tad gratuitous. Over all, it was somewhat enjoyable and intriguing, but not awe-inspiring.


The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus Trilogy I)
by Jonathan Stroud

fantasy, recommended (5th and up)

This proves that as a reader, I am not entirely consistent… I tried reading this title a year ago and found myself irritated by the tone of the narrative voice of one of the main characters, namely Bartimaeus. This time around, I had more leisure and more patience. Now this story becomes both fascinating, solid, and Bartimaeus has become an endearing character, albeit a conceited one! I can now see why The Amulet of Samarkand is a favorite of so many of my students. I applaud their taste! I must say that as fantasy world-building goes, this story is really successful: it follows impeccable logic and is rich with historical and mythical information. Now I look forward to reading the sequel!


First Boy (galley)
by Gary D. Schmidt

mystery (5th-7th)

There is simply too much concentration on cows and farm businesses to keep my interest up! It MOVES SO SLOWLY… and the pay off was not that great at the end. The sense of suspense is done well but unfortunately I just did not care enough about the characters to be emotionally invested in the outcome of all the “mysteries.” And… the events are both predictable and too coincidental to make this a first (or even second) rate mystery. Too bad…


W Juliet (vols. 1 – 4)
by Emura

realistic fiction, gender bender, manga, graphic narrative, translation (5th-7th)

This gender-bender manga is a lot of fun to read. I enjoyed the relationship between the main characters (the tender love affair is very touching) but found that it drags on a bit — which is common in serialization… one year of their time together is prolonged into FOUR volumes… and I just want a little more and faster development of their predicament… and I want to know exactly what HAPPENS at the end… but alas, that will take maybe another 3 years!


Saiyuki (vols. 1 – 4)
by Kazuya Minekura

fantasy, manga, graphic narrative, translation (7th and up)

This manga series has one of the best artworks in the field… Amazing hair-dos, of course; great personalities — you can actually tell each character apart without having to memorize their hairstyles or clothing! The storyline is pretty wacked but that is not surprising, being Manga. There is solid emotional development for each of the 4 main characters and enough of a coherent storyline that I would recommend this to readers new to this genre/form. Of course, there is a lot of gore (and slight sexual references) that it is not for the very young or faint of heart!


Goblin Wood
by Hilary Bell

fantasy, recommended (5th-7th)

Read this last year but for some reason didn’t record the experience. A solid fantasy from a solid author. I loved how all the characters are drawn with depth and complexity, loved the relationships between the humans and the goblins and between the main characters, and definitely loved the resolution that was not simple or predictable.


The Old Country
by Mordicai Gerstein

historical fiction, fantasy, magical story, highly recommended (4th-7th)

An odd and fascinating tale, with all the right fairy tale touches, and the mysterious ensemble of characters. Couldn’t quite figure out whether very young readers who have not much exposure to the history of the Jewish Holocaust will find this tale intriguing or puzzling… and for those who have been exposed to that part of history, will this tale be too “messagey” or enlightening? For this reader, it was satisfying enough, both as a fairy tale and social commentary. And of course, one does like a surprising ending!


Princess Academy
by Shannon Hale

fantasy, highly recommended (5th-7th)
Shannon Hall Goose Girl delivered again! I was a little put off by the cutsie looking cover.. thinking, oh, no, she sold out!! She’s doing a cute Princess Tale kind of thing… but, no, once again, the situations and the magic are subtle and the skillful presentation of the inter-personal relationships still holds mesmerizing power from this talented storyteller. Magic, boarding school story, romances, friendship, self-discovery, wit… this book has everything!


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
by Suzanna Clarke

fantasy, alternative history, adult

OH MY GOD… this book is SOOOO good! I would have given it 10 stars if I allow myself to break the rating rules! What a strange mixture of the traditional British comic portrayal of class relations, a la Jane Austen, and the dark, supernatural musings of fine writers such as Hawthorne… One can slowly savor this long tale (782 pages with fine print and finer print for footnotes of which many are short stories in disguise…) and never wish to get out of that eerie world of 19th century alternative Britain. So imaginative and lyrical; so humorous and melancholy; so amazing! A book that stole my heart!


The Good Times are Killing Me
by Lynda Barry

mystery, YA (7th and up)

Barry is skilled in presenting the voices of the characters and capturing the senses of the places. However, there is somewhat a disconnect because of the episodic nature of the “story.” I can imagine how this works really well with music, as when it was first presented as a musical one woman play. Without the music, something is definitely lacking.


Day of Tears
by Julius Lester

historical fiction, highly recommended (5th and up)

I couldn’t quite make up my mind whether I enjoyed this or not. The subtitle of a “novel in dialogue” really threw me — because the “dialogues” are mostly monologues and there are plenty of descriptions of settings and musings of emotions to make this a successful “dialogue” novel. The voices are also not very distinct from person to person. That said, there are many many strong elements going for the novel.   One being the underlying story itself: it is powerful and I can see young readers taking this short tale to heart and understanding the theme and events deeply for its emotional impact.  Another is the strong and effective portrayal of many of the characters and their relationships.  And of course, the imagery of tears/rain, consistent throughout the story, reflecting the mood of the characters and the readers.

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January 2005 Reads

Kira Kira

author: Cynthia Kadohata
audience: 6th and up
historical fiction

This is 2005 Newbery Winner — I did not read it prior to the announcement of the award, so read it with a mind-set of finding worthiness of this winning title, so I was probably more critical than usual. Still, I could not really figure out why it was an award winning book. There are incidents in the book that show sloppy writing/editing: after stating that a “couple” of years past without much going on, the next “going on” happens 4 and a half years later. A couple never equals 4.5. The narrator’s voice also shifts from the young and naive tone and old and sophisticated tone constantly. Unlike the masterful handling in Spinelli’s “Milk Weed” in which the narrator also goes in and out of “understanding” of his situation, both as a character IN THE MOMENT, and as a narrator REMEMBERING those moments, Kira Kira’s narrator shifts tones without showing such “designed” inconsistancy. Instead, it is jarring. Someone says that this reads more like a memoir, and I agree — there is little plot structure. However, even as a memoir, there should be consideration of momentum. The meandering nature of side-stories and family narratives may make it a less appealing read for young readers. I do think that readers who love SAD STORIES will really like this really DEPRESSINGLY SAD story… it does have a somewhat hopeful ending….


Godless

author: Peter Hautman
audience: 7th and up
realistic fiction, YA

I can’t believe this book won the National Book Award for Young Readers this year… On the prose level, it is nothing outstanding; on the philosophical level, it does not leave the readers deeper understanding of religions or the teens who are struggling with their beliefs; on the plot level, it is a shapeless mess with a sloppy ending. I admit that it did keep my interest up because the premise is an interesting one and I do enjoy reading the “Genesis” of the religion of the Water Towers. However, there is such detachment from all the characters (the ones that SHOULD be sympathetic are not really so) and there is NO character growth or development at all. I am shaking my head in disbelief, again, that the NBA’s judges would have chosen this piece of work as the BEST book of the year… so weird…


Peter and the Starcatchers

author: Dave Barry and Ridley Peterson
audience: 4-6
fantasy, adventures

I enjoyed the inventiveness of this story and the fast pacing, for the first 4/5 of the book. The last 1/5 got quite tedious with very short chapters, switching perspectives, and not that much happening for quite a few chapters… all with one goal in mind: covering as much Neverland Cast as possible and spiraling toward the conclusion that allows the “beginning” of Peter Pan and the Never Land… Unfortunately, this Peter is in no form or shape resembling the TRUE Peter Pan. He, (the one here) is simply too nice, too noble, and too friendly. There is no trace of the devious and a-moralistic nature that makes Peter Pan (the real one) so charming and unusual. This should still be a fun read for many children.


Brilliance of the Moon

author: Lian Hearn
audience: 7th and up
fantasy, YA, series

Although this 3rd installment in the Otori tales is no where near the quality, intensity, and beauty of the first one, I still enjoyed reading the conclusion of the story. The battle/war scenes, the pirates, and the suffering of Kaede all have huge impact on this reader. It drew me into a world to lose myself and I did willingly. I did not want to leave that make-believe land and time. (But, I don’t need another volume, unless it possesses the same sparkling prose as the first one…)


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Early 2004 Reads

Meet the Austins

by L’Engle, Madeleine
Realistic Fiction (4-6)

What a gentle, charming, old-fashioned fiction from the “olden days.” (1960.) The strong bond of the family is remarkable and yet very common place. This story reminds the readers to appreciate the every day life and to see the extraordinary and often humorous sparkles of ordinary events. A lovely read.


Angels and Demons

by Dan Brown
Mystery (7th, 8th, YA, adult)

I enjoyed the plot for the most part. The characters are really flat and there are a couple of holes towards the end of the story. This definitely does not qualify as an outstanding work of literature but it sure kept me reading. The ambigrams and the art history references are definitely the strength. The romance is not.


Starting with Alice

by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Realistic Fiction (3-5)

This first prequel to Naylor’s popular Alice series works. Alice is her smart but lack of confidence self — quite precocious for a beginning 3rd grader, borderlining unbelievable at points, though.


The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place

by E. L. Konigsburg
Recommended
Realistic Fiction (5-8)

Konigsburg’s much-anticipated new novel is as smart, soul-touching, and quirky as many of her other titles. However, I did not fall in love with this story as much as I had hoped for — I wanted another Silent to the Bone — an excellent title with a strong appeal to young readers; instead, I got a Father’s Arcane Daughter — an excellent book that might not have a strong following of young readership. Of course, with the Summer Camp scenes, some children might find it appealing.


Pop Princess

by Rachel Cohn
Realistic Fiction, YA (6-8)

Definitely not as smart, touching, and tender as Gingerbread. It was nonetheless and entertaining read.


The Wee Free Men

by Terry Pratchett
highly recommended
Fantasy, Humorous Story (6-8)

I enjoyed Pratchett’s brand of humor in this Discworld novel. It reminds me quite a bit of Coraline by Gaiman — the whole Dream World being sketchy and not solid to withstand close scrutiny scenario and the entering into this created world to rescue a family member and also to gain self-understanding and self-reliance. It just got to be a bit tedious at the end.


Vote for Larry

by Janet Tashjian
Realistic Fiction, YA (6-9)

This sequel to Gospel According to Larry is definitely inferior to the original — very heavy-handed, message-ladened, and the Mystery part is trite. I can see young readers enjoy it, though.


Doing It!

by Melvin Burgess
Realistic Fiction, YA (9-12)

After the first shocking effects wear off, the story loses my interest quickly. The characters do not seem real to me and although there are moments of extreme humor, the moralistic overtone makes it an unsatisfying read.


East

by Edith Pattou
Recommended
Fantasy (5-7)

This retelling of the Norse fairy story of East of the Sun, West of the Moon is so much fun to read — but did drag a little in the middle, when Rose is journeying north and crossing the sea, too many side characters who mean very little to the readers and too much description without moving the plot along. Both Rose’s World and the Troll Kingdom are well realized and the multiple voices are distinct and work nicely in presenting the whole story.


An American Plague

by Jim Murphy
Nonfiction (6-8)

I could not understand why this book received so much acclaim! It was nominated for National Book Award’s Young Readers category; it won the Sibert Award, and a Newbery Honor…. and yet, it is SO dry, SO unruly, and SO boring. Reading it, I did not sense the urgency or the horror of the plague. And I was so ready to be swept away….


Lyra’s Oxford

by Philip Pullman
Recommended

Fantasy (5-8)
Of course I had to read this book — taking place 2 years after the conclusion of His Dark Materials trilogy, this short tale relates an incident about a witch in Lyra’s Oxford. I loved pouring over the inserted map and all the merchandizes advertised on the back of it. A gem.


Stravaganza: The City of Masks

by Mary Hoffman
Recommended
Fantasy (4-7)

This wonderfully inventive time/space/dimensional travel fantasy/science-fiction blend delivers an intense mystery. I can’t wait to read the sequel — The City of Stars.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

by Mark Haddon
Recommended
Realistic Fiction, YA, Adult (8-12)

The protagonist is definitely a unique creation. I enjoyed many of his insights, reasonings, and limitations. At moments, I found his character is a little inconsistent with what he CLAIMS he is — but, other people have convinced me that that is how an autistic person might function. A wildly popular book with both adults and young people, I see this award winning novel enjoy a long shelf life.


Abhorsen

by Garth Nix
Recommended
Fantasy, series (6-9)

The conclusion of the trilogy that started with Sabriel is powerful, exciting, but at the same time a little disappointing — too short! I’d like to read MORE about what hapstar next in the Old Kingdom and the land of the dead…


The River Between Us

by Richard Peck
Recommended
Historical Fiction (6-8)

I put it down at first reading, but decided to go back and re-read it. When I read the entire story, it worked much better. The characters definitely become alive, the horror of the Civil War war front and the sorrow of the Home Front can both be “seen” and “felt” vividly, and the final revelation of the relationships between the two narrators definitely concludes the story powerfully. I think this is a book that I will go back to re-read and savor more.


Milkweed

by Jerry Spinelli
Highly Recommended
Historical Fiction (5-8)

The dual voices of the narrator whose identity changes several times in this story set in the Warsaw Ghetto works so incredibly well — he is both an innocent 8-year-old (we guess) and an old man in America who wisely recalls his time in great perils. Finely crafted, with a cast of genuine characters, this novel definitely speaks to me and I imagine many many young readers will find it a powerful, although definitely disturbing and devastating story.


Olive’s Ocean

by Kevin Henkes
Reccommended
Realistic Fiction (5-7)

Contrary to what I expected, this story is really not quite about “death” but about savoring “life” and all its colors and lights. Martha is a very sensitive and extremely thoughtful 12-year-old and her relationship with her family rings true. I like the Grandma. But, the scenes with the boy-next-door seem a bit contrived and unconvincing.


Lirael

by Garth Nix
Highly Recommended
Fantasy, series (6-9)
Definitely my favorite of the trilogy! Lirael is such an amazing character, and she is a Librarian, none less. So much of the story hapstar in the coolest Library one can imagine and the Disputable Dog is an absolutely original character. I was completely blown away by this volume.

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