A haunting history

31451001Crossing Ebenezer Creek, by Tonya Bolden (2017)

Opening line: “In a southeast Georgia swamp, when a driving rain drenches an early December day, bald cypresses seem to screech, tupelos to shriek, Ebenezer Creek to moan.”

Wow. This one… just wow.

Crossing Ebenezer Creek tells the story of Mariah and a group of slaves who are freed by members of the Union Army in their march south with General W. T. Sherman. One of the men with the Union soldiers is Caleb, an African American who was born free, after his parents bought their freedom before his birth. He is working with the army, helping with repairing and building bridges, repairing wagons, and foraging for supplies in abandoned plantations. In conversations over campfires on the march toward Savannah, Caleb and Mariah comfort each other as they share the horrors of their past, and begin to make plans for the future, perhaps together. Caleb dreams of starting a newspaper, keeping a journal throughout the journey to chronicle this important moment in our country’s history. Mariah just dreams of having one acre of her own for her and her young brother Zeke, big enough to plant a garden and live off the land.

But the confederate army is trailing behind them, closer and closer, which leads to a devastating conclusion of their story and a particularly dark moment of the Civil War. I had never heard of what is known as the Betrayal at Ebenezer Creek before this, and found this a beautiful and haunting contribution to YA historical fiction. The narrative and language is a bit more complex than most of the books I buy for my middle schoolers, but will be a great fit for those readers who need a challenge. The nearness of the setting (between Atlanta and Savannah) will bring this story to life for my students too. It certainly did for me. For perhaps the first time, I feel motivated to learn more about this dark era of American history.

2.5 stars.

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A Romeo & Juliet for the modern American scene… without the daggers and poison of course.

 

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Something In Between, by Melissa de la Cruz (2016)

Opening line: “First you have to hollow out.”

Jasmine is starting her senior year and things are working out perfectly. She’s captain of the cheer team, she’s on the road to valedictorian, she met a cute boy at the hospital where she volunteers, and her school counselor just gave her the best news ever: she’s won a highly prestigious award, the National Scholarship Program, which will pay for her entire college career at any school of her choice. She can’t wait to get home to tell her parents, but when she does, they don’t react the way she expects. After all, she didn’t expect them to have even bigger news.

Jasmine isn’t going to be able to accept the scholarship, her parents tell her, because she doesn’t have the necessary documents. In fact, she doesn’t have any documents. The green cards Jasmine believed her family had are fictitious. Jasmine’s family moved to America from the Philippines when she was nine, and California is the only home she really remembers. But after their temporary work visas ran out and their green cards fell through, they’ve been secretly flying under the radar. With Jasmine starting to apply to colleges, though, under the radar isn’t going to be an option too much longer. Now what?

To add to the stress level, enter in Royce Blakely, aforementioned cute boy, who Jasmine quickly falls head over heels for. The sweetness and kissing in their romance is definitely swoonworthy and sent my old-married-lady heart a twittering. The only problem is, Royce is the son of Senator Blakely, the California congressman who is leading the crusade against the new immigration bill that would allow her family to reapply for green cards and, eventually, citizenship. The Blakelys represent everything her family is not: wealthy, well-connected, blonde Americans. Jas is sure their relationship — and likely her future as an American citizen — is doomed.

I loved the complexity the author brings to what might otherwise be a sweet, light-hearted teen romance. She’s definitely brought the romance — mild enough for middle school libraries, but knee-weakening enough for YA romance fans — and there is so much MORE to dig into as well. The story of the undocumented immigrant family is relevant and timely and offers a very different picture of what that means than many readers may be familiar with. Additionally, the relationships Jasmine has with her family is fantastic. I LOVE the dialogue that happens in Jasmine’s house, particularly with Jasmine’s father. His one-liners had me cracking up! (In fact, these family relationships reminded me of the ones in The Hate U Giveanother one I loved this year.)

Finally, I loved all the quotes de la Cruz provided at the beginning of each chapter to kind of set the tone. I was amazed at how apt they all seemed to be, and have added some new favorites to my list.

2.5 stars.

 

A search for peace among war

51pf6phqmrlPax, by Sara Pennypacker (2016)

Opening line: “The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first.”

Get ready for a heart-breaker, friends.

Years ago, while playing in the woods, Peter stumbled across a dead mother fox and her litter of pups, all but one of whom were also dead. The tiniest one was somehow surviving, and Peter brought him home and named him Pax. Since that moment, the two, boy and fox, were inseparable. But now war is upon them, and Peter’s father is joining the effort, meaning that Peter must go live with his grandfather, where Pax is not allowed. Heartbroken, but seeing no other option, he releases him into the wild, where he hopes he will be safe. Pax, of course, doesn’t understand, and plans to wait until his boy returns. But when hunger sets in and danger lurks, that plan isn’t quite so easy.

Meanwhile, the moment Peter arrives at his grandfather’s, he knows he made a mistake leaving Pax behind. He will know no peace until he finds Pax again. So he sets out in the middle of the night, planning to hike the couple hundred miles back to where he left his fox. As you might imagine, things go array pretty quickly.

The chapters switch back and forth between Peter’s story and Pax’s, as both are desperate to reunite with the other. The alternating perspectives spur the story forward, allowing the reader to feel that desperation as well. Those who loved One and Only Ivan will love Pax as well, and it is well-deserving of its spot on the NBA Young People’s Literature longlist for 2016.

2 stars

 

 

Imperfect romance in the City of Love

Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins (2010)

Opening line: “Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amelie and Moulin Rouge.

Anna’s divorced parents decide she should spend her senior year at a boarding school in Paris. Why? No one’s sure, especially not Anna. And she’s not too thrilled about it either. She muses that she perhaps would have been thrilled by the option of a year in Paris, but not by the demand. After all, she has a bff, a job, and a cute boy to pine over all back in Atlanta. Instead, she’s in the City of Lights with not a friend to her name and the most minimal knowledge of French (we’re talking oui and merci).

Fortunately, her next door neighbor in the dorm is super nice and Anna has a group of friends almost immediately. Also fortunately, there’s a super cute, british-accented boy who is part of said friend group. Unfortunately, he already has a girlfriend AND the friendly next door neighbor is also in love with him.

You might be thinking, this sounds a bit formulaic and a bit cheesy, and you’d be right. It is that. And it might be easy to write this one off as just that. However, as a girl who pined after a boy who had a girlfriend during her own senior year in high school, this felt SPOT ON emotionally. The constant confusion of liking him, feeling guilty for liking him, feeling sure that you and he would make a much better couple than him and his current girlfriend, feeling inadequate for not being enough for him, etc. And I think teenage readers will connect to these feelings as well.

Not high-brow, inspiring literature, but relevant and fun escapism romance. 1.5 stars

Another South Carolinian Debutante

Girls in Trucks, by Katie Crouch (2008)

Opening Line: “If you are white, are a girl or boy between the ages of nine and twelve, and, according to a certain committee of mothers, are good enough to associate with Charleston’s other good girls and boys, than Wednesday night is a busy night for you.”

For some reason, the opening line to Katie Crouch’s debut novel reminds me of the opening line to Pride and Prejudice. They’re really not that similar, but the impression is somewhat complementary: If you grow up in this society, you will be paired with someone and you will like it. Pairing up is not an option, but a necessity. And that is what seems to plague poor Sarah Walters throughout her life (and the life of this novel).

Born in Charleston, South Carolina in what feels like the late 70s/early 80s, Sarah is a hesitant debutante at best. Part of the Charleston Camellias, a prestigious society of ladies, she is expected to become a good Southern woman, following the path laid out for her by generations of previous Camellias. Instead, Sarah follows in the path of her older sister Eloise, and jets up north for college to get away from it all. While this seems like a whole new wonderful world to Sarah, reality sets in, and she finds that a self-directed path is not as easy as she hoped. And despite her desire to get away from the debutante matchmaking, her failed relationships and search for the perfect man dominate her life anyway. It isn’t until a family tragedy brings Sarah home that she begins to see that maybe a life in the South wouldn’t be so terrible after all.

I was drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover, and as a brand new South Carolinian. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, and was unnecessarily complicated by strange shifts in point of view/voice. However, Crouch does give us snippets of unexpected humor sprinkled where they are needed to keep us from spiraling into Sarah’s despair, which helped keep me turning the pages.

1.5 stars

And the moon and the stars and the trees

I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson (2014)

Opening Line: “This is how it all begins. With Zephyr and Fry – reigning neighborhood sociopaths — torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, trees, this white-hot panic.”

With just this opening line, you get a sense of the complex, somewhat magical narrative voice of Noah, twin brother to Jude, our other narrator. These two teenagers wind a twisting tale of the years between the ages of 13 and 16. The story is not told chronologically, however, but jumps between Noah’s point-of-view at age 13 and Jude’s perspective at age 16. Once two halves of a whole, by the time of Jude’s story, the twins are barely speaking verbally, not to mention the ax on their twin telecommunication. While it’s unclear why, it is clear that their lives have completely changed following some terrible circumstances surrounding their mother’s death. Secrets were kept, hearts were broken, and futures were altered. Noah, at 13, bound for greatness with his outstanding artistic talent despite his outsider status among his classmates, has completely stopped painting and has become a quiet part of the popular crowd at the public high school by 16. Jude, queen of the parties and jealous of the fact that her brother is the apple of their mother’s eye during Noah’s story, is now a loner hiding under hats and seeking a mentor for her artwork as a part of the program at the fancy arts academy. As each twin tells their tale, we start to see how they overlap and what really happened that fateful day.

Unlike some in the YA canon, this is not a quick read. It’s meaty; 371 pages of meat, to be exact, and at least for me, a lot of it was slow-going. In the last 100 pages, though, it picked right up and I couldn’t put it down. My breakfast cereal waited in the closet, the dog went un-walked (not that the lazy guy minded), and I didn’t get out of bed until it was finished this morning. I love the twists and turns and the trying to figure it out-ness of this one. Also, the language! Like the opening line up there suggests, these two narrators don’t storytell in the most ordinary way, but in somewhat fantastical, round-about voices. Each have their own unique tendencies, but they are cut from the same cloth to be sure, and make the reader work a little harder for their supper. Not a bad thing, in my book.

Another winner for the the YA Bibliobitches book club. 2.5 stars.

A Rom-Com, of the intellectual and relatively depressing variety…

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

Opening line: “To start with, look at all the books.”

It’s hard to deny my attraction to a book that begins this way. A coworker of mine several years ago told me that as a former English major, I should definitely read The Marriage Plot. She was right — it’s got the fixings to a novel I should love: literary references out the wazoo, multiple character perspectives, a sense of epic storytelling (crossing time periods and oceans), and a complicated romance.

Madeleine Hanna is an English major working on her thesis about the “marriage plot” of literature’s great novelists, like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontes. But while her intellectual mind is caught up in the romantic structure of the page, her real life romance is much more complicated, featuring two very different gentlemen. The first is Mitchell, who was “friend-zoned” freshmen year but still holds a torch for our heroine, while the second is Leonard, a mysterious biology student who intrigues and enchants Madeleine like no one has before. And while this might sound like the makings of a very common modern-day marriage plot, Eugenides does what he does best by complicating things with intense, intricately-crafted characters. Mitchell heads off to Europe and India after college with his roommate to figure out what the hell he’s doing with his life with or without Madeleine, while Madeleine and Leonard deal with Leonard’s apparent bipolar disorder, or as it was known in the 1980s when this tale is set, manic depression.

I liked this book. I wouldn’t stretch it to love, but, like I said before, what Jeffrey Eugenides does, he does well (see my review of his previous book Middlesex). I admire his character development, the vastness of his landscape, both in terms of time and place, and his way of piecing together stories in a way that adds depth and intrigue.

1.5 stars, edging to 2.