Tag Archives: historical fiction

My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger

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My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger

Kluger, Steve. My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park. Dial/Penguin, New York: 2008 ISBN 978-0-8037-3227-8 $16.99 408 pp

****

Three juniors assigned to write about their “most excellent” year all choose the freshman year they became friends in this coming out/coming of age story that blends baseball, theatre, international politics, activism and Japanese internment. Told in a round robin style, motherless Anthony (a.k.a. Tick) is the lynchpin of the story – he and best friend Augie, a musical theatre fan, consider themselves to be non-biological brothers.  Augie directs the Freshman Follies and falls hard for a jock, who falls back while Tick crushes on Alejandra, who, ordained by her parents to attend Harvard and become an ambassador or diplomat, aspires to be a musical theatre star. The trio not only pull off a phenomenal stage shows, they also get a park at Manazanar dedicated to the teams that played there. Motherless Tick befriends a deaf orphan named Hucky who is convinced Mary Poppins is going to come and take care of him, and it is through the relationship he develops with Hucky that Ale sees him as something more than an impertinent Bostonian.

Kluger magnificently weaves together multiple storylines in this epistolary novel told in emails, instant messages, essays, conversations, and ephemera such as playbills, expertly revealing plot and character through these documents. It is evident that he has affection for his characters, as their personalities emerge strongly, revealing each teen in turn as clever, sensitive, introspective, passionate, confident, scared, and caring. Supporting adults are well-drawn–Pop doles out advice to his son that only backfires, but his own romance brewing with Tick’s school advisor is endearing and subtle.

The suburbs of Boston and streets of New York take on a life of their own, through dialect and landmarks, that culminates in Tick’s climatic trip to NYC to bring Hucky to meet his idol, Julie Andrews. Humor abounds, and balances out more serious issues. Augie’s homosexuality is refreshingly viewed with nothing but support–in fact, all the characters “know” long before he officially comes out–perhaps the obsession with divas of stage and screen gives it away.

A promotional website includes excerpts from the book and pages dedicated to clearing Buck Weaver’s name from the White Sox’s World Series fix, and bringing baseball back to Manzanar, two pet projects of Tick’s. Although it is far-fetched that plot events fall into place so perfectly, My Most Excellent Year is a story with so many moments of magic, it somehow works. My Most Excellent Year is sure to satisfy fans of Kluger’s most excellent novel, Last Days of Summer, and please new readers across many ages.

Leonardo’s Shadow: Or, My Astonishing Life as Leonardo da Vinci’s Servant by Christopher Grey

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Leonardo’s Shadow: Or, My Astonishing Life as Leonardo da Vinci’s Servant by Christopher Grey

Grey, Christopher. Leonardo’s Shadow: Or, My Astonishing Life as Leonardo da Vinci’s Servant. Atheneum, 2008. ISBN 978-1416905448 400 pp. $13.99

Inspired by Leonardo’s Notebooks, author Grey creates a portrait of the famous painter and inventor, imaginatively seen through the eyes of his faithful young servant Giacomo. Much of the plot concerns the completion of the painting of the Last Supper. The artist, two years past deadline, cannot pay his ever more impatient creditors, and shrouds himself and his motivations in mystery, while glib Giacomo is left to make excuses to merchants, to aristocrats, and to the clergy. Meanwhile, Giacomo is struggling to find answers to his own questions, too: why won’t da Vinci teach him how to paint? What is the real reason for the delay of the Last Supper? And, most importantly, what is Giacomo’s true parentage? 

Giacomo’s voice is the major strength of this first novel. He recounts his adventures in 15th century Milan in a conversational way that makes the city come alive with sights, smells, and sounds. Historical details like what clothing people wore are woven into to a trip to the tailor shop. Giacomo’s wide-eyed observation and participation on everything from the annual street fight between servants and apprentices to how paint is made draw the reader in.

Grey cleverly brings in details of da Vinci’s real life, naming the servant Caterina after his mother, making his medusa-esque portrait a commissioned work that outrages the duke’s mistress, and alluding to the legend that the same model was used for Jesus and Judas.

The book is aesthetically pleasing too. Sketches of da Vinci’s decorate the verso of the title page, the cover has the look of an aged painting and the rough cut edges give an antique feel that fits the setting. Slip off the dustcover to reveal a print of the Last Supper to refer to as the denoument blossoms.

Even years after Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 2003), interest in the topic remains high; references to the infidelities within the Italian court and da Vinci’s questioned sexuality may be too earthy for younger readers in spite of the accessibility of the story and engaging narrative. 

An author’s note lists several text and web resources, and an excellent short film to promote the book is hosted at http://www.youtube.com/user/LeonardosShadow.

The Pox Party: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, book one by M.T. Anderson

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The Pox Party: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, book one by M.T. Anderson

Anderson, M.T. The Pox Party: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, book one. Candlewick, 2008. ISBN 978-0763636791. 384 pp. $10.99

*****

Young Octavian–a black boy born to an African princess but a slave nonetheless–has his life chronicled in narrative, letters, diary entries, etc, detailing his upbringing in a wealthy household as a science experiment.

This particular title has won a Printz Honor Award as well as the  National Book Award for Young People’s literature, and quite deservedly so. Many librarians and educators question if teens will voluntarily pick up this tone, written in the formal educated speech of the late eighteenth century. Because the themes of the novel–identity, loyalty, duty– are YA issues, they will surely be of interest to YA readers. Once the reader gets into the cadence, the formal educated speech is a treasure; just as Feed’s inventive vocabulary required a certain level of deciphering, so does Octavian.

The voice  of an experiementally educated black in an historical time period is unique and clear, and a voice not yet heard in the canon of YA literature. The format is daring and innovative. The convention of the reader figuring out what is going on alongside the protagonist is effective showing not telling. When such unspeakable things happen to the narrator that he can no longer share his story, the novel switches to letter format that has a strong impact. The technique of using thick dark strike throughs to convey difficulty in expression is also brilliant. What is NOT being said reveals a great deal about the character.

Set during the American Revolution, the initial focus is a scientific society, rather than the rebellion. The accuracy is high; details are based in fact and meticulously researched. And the faintly hideous cover art hints at a dark event to come that is shudderingly real and very discomforting.

A must have for all collections, this can be cross-marketed to adults who may be fans of titles dealing with this time period.

Incantation by Alice Hoffman

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Hoffman, Alice. Incantation. Little Brown, 2007. ISBN  978-0316154284. 192 pp. $8.99

****

Estrella deMadrigal is aware that she lives in dangerous times. Jews are designated with red circles on their coats and city is divided religiously, with Muslims in one corner and Jews in another. Set in Spain the 1500’s, Estrella’s tightly knit family appear at first to witches. Knowledgeable practitioners of folk medicine, they attend a special church and practice many customs that are different from their neighbors, who include Estrella’s best friend, Catalina. It isn’t until the Inquisition posts a list of characteristics of Jews that Estrella understands her own identity, and the locked doors to her family’s secrets are opened. When Estrella falls for Catalina’s cousin, a Catholic, her smart and jealous friend betrays the deMadrigal family, and Estrella’s life changes again.

Alice Hoffman’s books for teens have an allegorical feel to them, and Incantation is no exception. Her sentences are straightforward yet lovely, filled with imagery that can be symbolically interpreted, for example, Estrella’s name and the descriptions of the horrors the community experiences serve as an allusion to the Holocaust. This powerful historical novel about the Spanish Inquisition deserves a place on both school and public library shelves.

Review by Beth Gallaway

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

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Donnelly, Jennifer. A Northern Light. Clarion, 2019 (reprint). ISBN 978-0358063681 416 pp. $9.99

*****

Inspired by Dreiser’s classic-based-on-a-true-story An American Tragedy (New American Library, 1925), this historical novel about a 1906 murder in upstate NY is told from the point of view of young Mattie Gokey, a hotel waitress and aspiring college student saddled with caring for her motherless siblings and holding the family together. Mattie is spunky, resourceful, and truth-seeking, surrounded by believable, complex and dynamic friends, family and neighbors. She is best friends with a fellow word-lover and black boy whose mouth and temper sometimes get him into trouble. And she can’t believe that the most handsome and popular boy in town is courting her.

Mattie’s strong voice captures the period closely – neighbors work together to help one another, blacks are still not seen as full citizens by many, and girls aren’t always given their due. When a hotel guest slips Mattie a packet of letters to destroy, Mattie, a writer and bibliophile, can’t do it. The letters reveal the love and desperation of a sad young woman and call into question the circumstances of her death. They are the call to arms that Mattie needs to pursue her own dreams.

The author’s own passion and empathy for the victim of a famous murder case shines through this gem of a book. It is well-deserving of it’s Printz honor award, and is a quality book that is engaging to teens and will win a nod of approval from teachers as well–AND meet curriculum frameworks!

Review by Beth Gallaway

Another take on A Northern Light.

Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken

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Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken

McCracken, Elizabeth. Niagara Falls All Over Again. Dial Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0385318372 320 pp. $25.99

Just as McCracken showed us the world of librarianship in The Giant’s House, here she offers a peep at the exotic traveling life of vaudeville in the early and mid 1900’s. Jewish Midwesterner Moses Sharp narrates his experience as the straight man professor to fat funnyman Rocky Carter on radio, stage and screen in a long and successful partnership that is wrought with argument, compromise, affairs, and hard work, like any marriage of two minds.

Although McCracken may limit her audience with her choice of topic and period references, every time I almost put the book down because I was tired of missing allusions, a laugh out loud funny scene came along, such as the radio scene where the sound man is drunk and uses hoofbeats for every audio effect. McCracken’s insightful gems are universal (“Love is an animal that can–with a great deal of patience–be taught to sleep in the house. That doesn’t mean it won’t kill you if you’re not careful.” p. 93), her humor is easily accessible (the Sharp and Carter bits are funny as Abbott and Costello), and she has a poet’s knack for stringing together words to create vivid imagery: “In the corner a young man with dark hair that fell into his eyes sat at a grand piano, his shoulders already up to his ears, his hands above the keyboard, as though her were a character in a Swiss clock, waiting for the hour to strike.” p. 161

A certain set of readers will love this book, but it may not find a wide audience in spite of its universal themes of marriage and relationships, and of maintaining humor and sanity in the face of devastating loss. Recommended for fans of John Irving.

The Impossible Journey by Gloria Whelan

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The Impossible Journey by Gloria Whelan

Whelan, Gloria. The Impossible Journey. Harper Collins, 204. ISBN 978-0064410830 256 pp. $

Whelan revisits the Russian Revolution in this tale of two children who undertake a journey across Russia to Siberia to be reunited with their parents who are arrested following a 1934 rebellion. Resourceful artistic Marya and her demanding young brother Georgi fend for themselves against corrupt adults including neighbors and acquaintances, but also find friends in unlikely places, including a tribe of indigenous peoples who herd reindeer. The underlying message of hope and freedom make the large roles of coincidence and serendipity forgivable. Simple language and careful telling make this appropriate for strong readers in lower grade levels.

The idea that a Russian doctor would be fired for reading an American medical journal is as frightening as the thought of children reporting their parents as disloyal comrades. This historical novel serves as an excellent discussion point for the advantages US citizens take for granted, and may be a reminder in these patriotic and suspicious times of ours that it is easy for governments to use fear to mold behavior. Pair with Whelan’s companion novel Angel on the Square for a more complete picture of life in communist Russia.