War Nurse

One of my most absolute favourite things ever is when I get to discover new books that I missed as a kid! Granted, this one is because I did not grow up a child in the UK, but you know, details.

War Nurse: A Second World War Girl’s Diary, 1939-1940¸ Sue Reid.

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I totally adored this book. It’s sweet and heart-wrenching, and I think oddly enough that spunky is the word I’d put to it. It totally personifies that can-do, chin-up spirit that is so thoroughly and irrevocably associated with the Brits of the Second World War, and it’s blended so beautifully with sadness that it feels very real. It’s a book about an older girl targeted at younger girls, which can be a pretty tricky task, but it’s done fairly well here!

Kitty, whose friends and family call her Kitten, is a member of the VAD—Voluntary Aid Detachment, or a sort of emergency nursing corps who have been instructed to turn up as soon as war is declared. And we waste no time getting there on the very first page! Her brother Peter is joining up with the army, and she’s off to the military hospital at Standhaven, and while she thinks she ought to feel noble and brave, she’s mostly just scared and homesick and lonely without her best friend. Her roommate introduces herself only as “Nurse Mason,” and seems to be very tidy and serious—unlike the other girls who Kit went to nursing school with, who are all jolly and friendly and excited. Ugh, you just know it’s going to be tragic and sad, isn’t it? Of course it is, no WWII stories end well.

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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!

Margaret

I wanted to hate this book so badly but I just couldn’t. Who knows, maybe I just had a particularly good week, but as stupid and ridiculous as this book was (and trust me: it was) I couldn’t hate it as much as I hate most of the Sunfire books. (I.e., enjoyable hatred.)

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Margaret, Jane Claypool Miner, 1988.

This book came out the year I was born and has a sticker on the back that says “PRICE 25¢” and I have no idea when it dates from. But at one point this book also passed through the Book Rack (locations in Arlington and Richland Hills, Texas) and cost $1.25 there. Check out this cover—Margaret is a spoiled, naïve little girl, but it’s impossible to hate anyone who wears a hat so jauntily with an expression of such clueless self-satisfaction. Also, her outfit bears a suspicious resemblance to the American Girl, Addy’s school outfit (and as I Googled this I discovered they changed it and now it’s not as cute anymore! WTF, this is what happens when Mattel just fucked up everything), just look at it!

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Anyway, look at the other men on the cover: there’s a hayseed wearing a suspiciously sharp-looking blue shirt and jeans and suspenders; and a nattily-dressed youth in a striped tie and straw boater, and he and Margaret are embracing in the bottom corner and gazing into each other’s eyes. Now normally this is a giant honking clue as to who the main character will end up with, but I suspect not in this case because usually the richer the guy is, the more of a douchebag he is. Let’s see.

Margaret here is the wealthy orphaned daughter of a Chicago family, who’s grown up with her aunt and uncle in the lap of luxury. But she’s decided (and it is never fully explained why) that she wants to dump all of that and become a schoolteacher in Nebraska. Also not fully explained: how she found out about this town, how they came to offer her a teaching position, any of this. Whatever, it’s not really important, clearly, because by page 13 Margaret is off on a train to Nebraska. Ridiculously, apparently she spends only “eight hours” on the train between Chicago and Nebraska, which is blatantly stupid because it takes longer than that right now in 2016 to go between Chicago and Omaha. In 1886 that would definitely not be an eight-hour trip. I’m so confused.

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Color Me Dark

I’ve definitely read this book with the intent of reviewing it like four separate times and for whatever reason I just get bogged down every time and forget about it and move onto something more interesting. Why? It’s not boring! It’s well-written! Maybe by the time you finish reading this recap you’ll have an answer for me.

Color Me Dark: The Great Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919, Patricia McKissack, 2000.

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This is one of those books that technically takes place in two places—Chicago, at the end, and Tennessee, where it starts. Nellie is eleven and lives there with her twelve-year-old sister Erma, her parents, her uncle, and their grandparents, in the funeral home her family runs. She has an older brother, who’s still with the army, and a young uncle who’s off with the army as well. So things are relatively smooth there—they have to go to a coloured school, which isn’t great, and there are bullies, but otherwise their family is happy and things are going pretty well.

Nellie’s father and grandfather are members of the Colored Men’s Improvement Association chapter (which is an organization by the NAACP), since they’re business owners and community leaders, but this occasionally leads to some tension with the local constabulary. But this is less important than the news that Nellie’s uncle Pace is coming home on the train, and everyone is tickled to death to see him again. But the sheriff brings him home, instead—saying he was so drunk he lay down on the train tracks and was hit by a train. They’re all baffled, first, because Pace doesn’t drink, and devastated second. Erma Jean is with him when he dies, and after that she becomes mute. Just flat out can’t speak anymore. She says nothing all through the wake and funeral, even when the far-flung uncles and aunts come into town, including her uncle Meese from Chicago.

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Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor

You can draw a direct line between this book and every girl who burned through the collected works of Philippa Gregory like they were written in cocaine.

Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor, England, 1544, Kathryn Lasky, 1999.

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This is the first and most famous of the entire series, and if the library copy I have in my hands is any indicator, it’s VERY well-loved. It’s so hard to write a Tudor story that isn’t incredibly overdone or overly reliant on the sex-and-intrigue conventions of the genre (hey, Philippa Gregory!), but focusing on a YA aspect gives it a really interestingly fresh perspective. Lasky doesn’t shy away from the worse aspects of the court (as mentioned, the sex/intrigue/nonstop plotting), but she downplays it enough to make it palatable for an audience of 11-year-olds who are probably getting their first introduction to a non-school discussion of Elizabeth I.

Lasky does a nice job of creating an Elizabeth who is intelligent and sensible without being precocious or overly-crafty. At eleven, she spends a lot of time worrying about whether her father loves her (a pretty understandable problem when your father is famous for killing people who irritate him), given that he keeps exiling her and then bringing her back to court over and over again. She bounces back between wondering if her father is totally in his right mind (a treasonous thought!) and loving him very much indeed. She spends most of her time with Kat, her governess, and on-and-off with the other royal “children” (in quotes because Princess Mary is twenty-eight, but still classified as a child) and their tutors. At the outset, Elizabeth is at Greenwich Palace, since one of the king’s frequent desires to forget her has given way to his new queen’s wishes. Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and final wife, is smart and has a tremendous interest in Elizabeth’s studies—unlike her other “mothers.”

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