Middle Grade Review: Sweep

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Genres: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Maturity Level: 3 (Content Warning: Child Abuse)
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

For nearly a century, Victorian London relied on “climbing boys”–orphans owned by chimney sweeps–to clean flues and protect homes from fire. The work was hard, thankless and brutally dangerous. Eleven-year-old Nan Sparrow is quite possibly the best climber who ever lived–and a girl. With her wits and will, she’s managed to beat the deadly odds time and time again.

But when Nan gets stuck in a deadly chimney fire, she fears her time has come. Instead, she wakes to find herself in an abandoned attic. And she is not alone. Huddled in the corner is a mysterious creature–a golem–made from ash and coal. This is the creature that saved her from the fire.


Sweep is historical fiction set in Victorian London with just a touch of magic. This is not a happy story, but is brutal in its honesty. While I didn’t find it particularly inspiring or touching, it’s impossible to deny the power of the story.

Continue reading “Middle Grade Review: Sweep”

Review: Before We Were Yours

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 4 (Content Warning: Sexual and physical abuse of children)
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Lisa Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.


Before We Were Yours is the quintessential historical fiction of the 2010s. The dual timelines, one in the past and one in the present that are interwoven and come to a climax in parallels, is done as well as I’ve ever seen it. The historical event it re-tells, the adoptions of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, is heart-wrenching and relatively unknown. Wingate’s writing is accessible and draws you in.

Continue reading “Review: Before We Were Yours”

Review: The Mirror & the Light

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

Series: Thomas Cromwell Trilogy
Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 5 (Content warnings: torture, burning)

View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?


The Thomas Cromwell trilogy is, hands down, the best historical fiction I have ever read. An explosive combination of terrific writing, unbelievably true court intrigue, and a mysterious yet prominent historical figure. Just wow.

Continue reading “Review: The Mirror & the Light”

Middle Grade Review: Lafayette!

Lafayette! by Nathan Hale

Series: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales
Genres: Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

Maturity Level: 3
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆

Gilbert du Motier became the Marquis de Lafayette at a young age, but he was not satisfied with the comforts of French nobility—he wanted adventure!

A captain at eighteen and a major general by nineteen, he was eager to prove himself in battle. When he heard about the Revolution going on in America, he went overseas and fought alongside Alexander Hamilton and George Washington for America’s independence.


YOU GUYS! If you’re a teacher or librarian and haven’t heard of Nathan Hale, I can only assume you’ve been living under a box. He takes historical figures and events and makes them kid-friendly. They are graphic novels told with a sense of humor and historical accuracy.

Continue reading “Middle Grade Review: Lafayette!”

Review: Outlander

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Series: Outlander
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Romance
Maturity Level: 5
View on Goodreads
Rating:
⋆⋆⋆⋆

The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord…1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life, and shatter her heart. For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire—and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.


Before reading this book I heard a *lot* about it. A lot of hype, a lot of hate, and a lot of strong opinions. So I came into this book with quite a few expectations. Yet Outlander somehow managed to side-step them all.

Continue reading “Review: Outlander”

Review: The Prince and the Dressmaker

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Genres: Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 2
View on Goodreads
Rating:
⋆⋆⋆⋆

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend?


Oh my goodness, this book was so sweet and cute and fun! I just loved it to death, and if you like graphic novels (and probably even if you don’t), you will too!

Continue reading “Review: The Prince and the Dressmaker”

Review: One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Series: Gaither Sisters
Genres: Historical Fiction, Middle-Grade Fiction
Maturity Level: 2
View on Goodreads
Rating:
⋆⋆⋆

In the summer of 1968, after travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters arrive to a cold welcome as they discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp.


I wanted to love this book. Truly, I did. But it just didn’t click for me.

Continue reading “Review: One Crazy Summer”

Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

Series: Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes
Genres: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 2
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

Long retired, Sherlock Holmes quietly pursues his study of honeybee behavior on the Sussex Downs. He never imagines he would encounter anyone whose intellect matched his own, much less an audacious teenage girl with a penchant for detection. Miss Mary Russell becomes Holmes’ pupil and quickly hones her talent for deduction, disguises and danger. But when an elusive villain enters the picture, their partnership is put to a real test.


This is one of those books that is going to be hard to write a review about because it was just so fine. Like, it was good, but there was nothing to really glow about. But there wasn’t anything bad to whine about either. So I guess I don’t have much to say.

Continue reading “Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”

Review: Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Genres: Middle-Grade Fiction, Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 2
View on Goodreads
Rating:
⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆

Esperanza thought she’d always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico–she’d always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances–Mama’s life, and her own, depend on it.


Goodness, I forgot how much I adored middle-grade historical fiction when I was a kid. There is something about this genre that I really connect with, and I think it gives kids the opportunity to explore heavy and difficult themes of the past without feeling confronted and uncomfortable about bad things now. If that makes sense.

Continue reading “Review: Esperanza Rising”

Review: Leading Men

Leading Men by Christopher Castellani

Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 5-
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆

In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysteriously taciturn young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encounter will go on to alter all of their lives.

Ten years later, Frank revisits the tempestuous events of that fateful summer from his deathbed in Manhattan, where he waits anxiously for Tennessee to visit him one final time. Anja, now legendary film icon Anja Bloom, lives as a recluse in the present-day U.S., until a young man connected to the events of 1953 lures her reluctantly back into the spotlight after he discovers she possesses the only surviving copy of Williams’s final play.


This is a classic example of why “literary fiction” isn’t for me. Can we not have a book that isn’t mostly about how we’re all going to die someday, and in the meantime it’s inevitable that we’re miserable? Where is the hope? In all fairness, this book ends on a hopeful note, but the first 420 pages were decidedly philosophically bleak.

If you’re super into the great writers of the mid-20th century (Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and so on), this book will certainly appeal to you. If you are fascinated by LGBT history, this book is probably also for you. If you enjoy novels in which the characters spend more time thinking and reflecting than they do talking, this is DEFINITELY a book you will enjoy. If none of those things are particularly interesting to you, you’ll likely be as bored as I was.

Which I realize sounds like I’m not interested in LGBT history. Let me clarify that that was the one thing I did enjoy.

A big problem for me was that the characters are all unsympathetic. Tennessee is a narcissist, Frank is infuriating, and Anja is cold. I realize that was done on purpose, but for me it was kind of a lot. In particular it really bothered me how Tennessee and Frank would use their fame and charm to sexually take advantage of young boys. Again, I think it’s rather supposed to bother you, and good literature makes you uncomfortable, but there wasn’t really enough to redeem them.

As a love story I also found Frank and Tennessee lacking. They certainly aren’t presented as the ideal relationship. I guess what really bothered me about them was how they cared for each other, but refused to admit it to one another. They were also both really selfish, and thought often of themselves before their partner.

This book was certainly masterfully crafted. Frank and Tennessee leaped off the page as if Castellani personally knew them, and I was 100% convinced that Anja was a real person. The prose are lovely, this philosophizing is intense, and the descriptions are vivid. The time period and setting are captured picture perfectly. There is a nice balance between events that serve to develop characters and events that serve to drive the story forward. Even the multiple POVs and time periods are handled expertly. It was easy to tell who was talking and when.

But as outstanding as this novel was, I personally didn’t connect with it or enjoy it. I appreciated the brilliant writing, the insights in to these real men, and the LGBT history lesson, but I felt like I finished this book out of obligation rather than enjoyment.