Number The Stars

We’re back in with the absolute classics!

Number The Stars¸ Lois Lowry, 1989.

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I understand they’re reissued this with a blue/gray cover, but this is the cover I grew up with and was on every school library bookshelf. I feel like the red and black is a particularly scary, and by scary I mean good, choice. This is a Newbery Medal winner, and an all-around wonder of a book, but I think the real beauty of this book is that it’s much, much scarier to adults than it is to kids. When I first read this book, I was probably around nine or ten, which is the age of Annemarie, the protagonist, and while I enjoyed it, I think I missed a lot of the subtler scariness. But now I’m nearly thirty and reading it is far, far worse, and it makes me want to cry.

Annemarie lives in Copenhagen with her parents and her younger sister, Kirsti. Since Copenhagen is under occupation by the Nazis, things are somewhat strained to say the least, but most of this goes over Annemarie’s head other than the soldiers on every street corner. Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen, is Jewish, and presumably a bit more worried about the state of affairs, but they still go to school and run races and generally behave like children. Annemarie used to have an older sister as well—Lise—who was engaged to be married when she was killed in a car accident two years before. Ever since, Lise’s fiancé Peter comes around to visit, but Annemarie notes how much older he seems ever since then.

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Jahanara: Princess of Princesses

Welcome to 2017! Let’s start the year off with an excellent example of YA fiction that teaches without being preachy, and is a ball of fun to read as well, and will probably make you want to go drink some tea.

I never had one lick of the history of India in school, other than maybe a brief pass by the East India Trading Company, which is of course a tragedy, but reading books like this desperately makes me wish I had. Indian history is fascinating.

Jahanara: Princess of Princesses, India, 1627, Kathryn Lasky, 2002.

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If you are like me and know very little Indian history, which is to my shame, Jahanara is the daughter of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz. Jahanara lives at court with her mother and her father’s three other wives: Tali, who is Persian; Indira, who is Hindu, and Samina, who is only described as “sour;” along with the various children and eunuchs in the court. They observer purdah, which means that they do not go out in public and are not seen by men outside of the circle, and Jahanara, at fourteen, feels trapped.

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2016 In Review

For a holiday week break, I thought I’d recap the Best and Worst of 2016! (Really, the best are just gushing, glowing reviews, and the worsts are nonstop castigations. But isn’t that more fun?)

Bests:

Quest for a Maid. A beautifully-told, engaging, thrilling story that truly does a little of everything. Drama, humour, family strife, romance, politics, natural disasters, you name it. All with fantastically evocative details and Scots words that never cross into twee or annoying. I can’t recommend this one enough.

These Are My Words. New this fall from Ruby Slipperjack, it’s heartbreaking and while it’s not a particularly plot-intensive book, its subject matter is so hard to get through that it’s cruel at times. Most of this story is told in subtext, rather than text, which I think makes it particularly good for both kids and adults. Wonderful and important.

Anacaona: Golden Flower. This book is like poetry. I know almost nothing about Haitian history and I still loved reading this book. It didn’t matter. It’s a fascinating story, wonderfully told, and sent me down a million joyful Wikipedia holes.

Graves of Ice. I realized that the I Am Canada books might really be worthwhile to read! This was far more thrilling than I gave it credit for, and I actually really did stay up late reading it because I couldn’t stand to put it down. I know I could have figured it out faster by reading the Wikipedia page for the Franklin expedition before I started, but hey. It was more exciting this way!

No Safe Harbour. I love this book. I loved it when I read it the first time and I love it more on every reread. It breaks my heart every time, but in a wonderful way. Just…read this one. Read them all, but read this one particularly.

Worsts:

Diana. Do I need to explain why the Sunfire books are here? Don’t ever date people who are rude to you! Don’t be a fickle, faithless jerk! Don’t have your books be finally resolved in the last twenty pages by “twists” that are actually ridiculous and stupid!

Megan. “1980s girl transported back in time, makes idiotic decisions, nearly gets killed and unfortunately isn’t.” Anachronism party.

The Fences Between Us. Oh good god. I loathed the very concept of this book—I hated the concept that the story of Japanese internment could be better told by a white girl. Why does this book even exist? Why did it get approved? Who wanted that? No. It’s not even a good story. It’s whiny and annoying and horrible.

Cassie. Seriously? Every single person in this book is either confusing or a total jerk. I hate them all and I wanted them all to have an unhappy ending. Except maybe for Cassie’s Indian fiancé, because she treated him terribly and he didn’t deserve that. I hope he found a better wife.

Grace of the Wild Rose Inn. Remember this one from way back in January? Let’s bring it back, because IT’S DREADFUL. In addition to the books being horribly written (every single one of them) and cartoony, this one has the terrible message of “If you don’t like your current fiancé, break up with him and marry his best friend three days later in front of all your friends and family.” None of this is a good idea. Doing that might be a worse idea than just marrying your shitty fiancé in the first place!

So what have we learned this year? That Dear Canada books are mostly great, and Sunfire books are mostly terrible! That I have very little patience for people making decisions that make zero sense given their time frame. That I expect authors of historical fiction to have more than a passing knowledge of the time period they’re writing about, or maybe have read more than a Time-Life book on the subject. That better books are written by authors who are emotionally invested in their work. And most of all: that 2016 was an excellent year for reading. Go forth and read more in 2016, and get back next week ready to read more recaps, reviews, and trash!

Carrie

Do you remember the first and third books I recapped in this series last year? They were pretty bad. (You could have probably figured that out.) The second one is oddly hard to lay my hands on, although I remember enjoying it more than the others when I read it. Maybe other people thought the same thing, which is why it’s hard to find now? No, we should be so lucky.

Carrie: Heart of Courage, Cameron Dokey, 1998.

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This is a book about the Chicago fire of 1871, which confused me a lot when I looked at the book for the first time because the hat Carrie is wearing on the cover is supposed to be a fancy summer hat, but looks more like a cowboy hat from a strange angle. Doesn’t it? Yes, it’s being held onto her head with a pink sash and she’s wearing a party dress, but I can’t be responsible for my initial impressions of the cover.

The whole first bit of this book is mostly Carrie whining about how she’s a shy, terrified little flower and her whole family is full of “strong Kelly women”—her great-grandmother participated in the Boston Tea Party, her grandmother was kidnapped and almost was caught in the burning of Washington in 1812, her mother traveled halfway across the world, and her older sister is an ardent suffragette. It’s not pointed out until much later in this book that excepting her sister, none of those women were Kellys by birth, so it should probably be just “strong women.” Anyway, Carrie’s trying to break out of her shell by going to a suffragette rally with her annoying friend Jessica, who’s telling her the whole time that she’s afraid of everything and paranoid. You know, given everything that happens to Carrie in this book, she is kind of right to be worried about stuff.

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Mary Alice Peale

God, I hated this book. I should start a tag expressly for books I hate, so people can better hate-read along with me. (Would you rather read about me hate-reading books, or gushing about books I think are amazing? There seems to be no middle ground.)

American Diaries: Mary Alice Peale, Philadelphia, 1777, Kathleen Duey, 1996.

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I picked this book specifically because the cover art is so, so, so bad. God, I hope a real girl didn’t sit as the model for this, because how very dreadful. Besides having a pretty bad face the artist has thoughtfully accessorized with a “WTF” hairstyle and a gift-wrap bow around her neck. The whole thing has the air of “Colonial family if they had access to a camera and delighted in taking awkward photos of their children.”

Anyway, this book is almost exactly as bad as the last one. The premise is that the Peale family is a wealthy Loyalist family in Philadelphia, but Mary’s older brother has gone off to fight for the patriot cause, causing a lot of drama and strife in their family. They haven’t heard from him in some time, and Philadelphia is being occupied by the British army, so Mary’s older sisters are pretty obsessed with finding officers to marry. I know this sounds promising, but trust me: it is definitely not.

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No Safe Harbour

I cannot BELIEVE it has taken me this long to get to this book! This is legit an excellent book, and not “excellent for 12-year-olds” but an actual good book in its very own right. Please read it.

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No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1917, Julia Lawson, 2006.

Now this is special in a few ways—first of all, today, December sixth, is the 99th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is why I chose today to run this book! If you’re not familiar with it, go read my article that ran on The Toast about it a few years back. Secondly, this is my one hundredth book review and I wanted to pick a book I really loved. Thirdly, when I did my Master’s degree my focus was the First World War in the Maritimes, so I did tons and tons of reading about the Explosion, so this book has a lot of meaning for me. What a great day for a great book!

One of the things I love about this book is that like so many Dear Canada books, it absolutely does not have a particularly happy ending. (This isn’t really a spoiler, the Explosion happens like a third of the way into the book and it’s in the damn title, so there.) Charlotte doesn’t miraculously come through the disaster with all of her family intact, but it’s not at all contrived or tearjerky. And secondly—the diary format works amazingly well here. Last week I reviewed a rebooted Dear America on the San Francisco earthquake, which on the surface had a lot of similarities to this one—young woman in an urban area faces family difficulties that are thrown into explicit focus after a major disaster strikes her city, and drama follows it. But while A City Tossed and Broken seemed to focus on the drama, No Safe Harbour is allllllll about how the Explosion has made such an enormous impact on everyone’s life that it’s impossible to discard. Now let’s learn.

Charlotte, who is twelve, is just-barely-the-youngest of five kids—her eldest brother Luke is fighting in France, her next-up sister Edith finished with school and working, bratty teenage sister Ruth in high school, and Charlotte’s slightly-elder twin brother, Duncan. Her father is a dock worker in Halifax, and they live quite happily, although not wealthily, in the north end of Halifax.

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A City Tossed and Broken

Now, it’s no secret that I think the Dear America reboots are nowhere near the same quality as the original flavour—even though the original series was plenty flawed on its own. The new ones have tried to cram in so much drama and excitement to compete with everything else on the market that they ended up losing the charm of the originals, which was “slice of life history with relatable details about every day set during interesting periods or events.” They don’t need over-involved plots and manufactured drama! Generally the drama of the historical event or period is plenty without shoehorning in lots of other crap! Anyway, this is one of if not the worst offender in that regard. These reboots also tend to dump the more realistic diary format in favour of a thrilling story, but that doesn’t read well in the format. Yeah, there’s a few nods here and there, but these would be mostly just as good stories with a traditional novel format. So that’s where I sit on the reboots: fine stories, but a poor match for the format.

A City Tossed and Broken: The Diary of Minnie Bonner, San Francisco, California, 1906, Judy Blundell, 2013.

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(If you are a longtime reader, Judy Blundell is the same author of the truly dreadful Brides of Wildcat County series, so that should tell you exactly where we’re headed.)

Anyway, this story bears a lot of similarities to a Dear Canada book, so we’ll discuss them in tandem with that one coming next week. Natural disasters and dark family secrets is a pretty potent combination, but it falls flat here, which is majorly disappointing.

Minnie Bonner, our surly protagonist, is the daughter of a long-suffering mother and gambling father in Pennsylvania. Her mother has just arranged for Minnie to begin as a lady’s maid to a wealthy family, since her own family is about to lose their tavern (due to Mr. Bonner’s gambling problem—thanks, Dad! What a peach you must be!). Even from the very first entry it’s very clear this story is not a good fit for the diary format, with long strings of dialogue and long paragraphs. It doesn’t ring anywhere close to realistic! OK, I’m done complaining. (That’s a lie.)

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