Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy book coverJosie is one of those amazing characters who, like a handful of incredible people I’ve known in real life, wants more out of her life than what she’s been dealt as the daughter of a brothel narcissistic prostitute—and she’s willing to work for it. It’s the 1950s in New Orleans and life is hard for a lot of people. But Josie’s observant and smart (both academically and street-smart), and she has a great deal of self-respect. It’s virtually impossible not to like her and root for her. 

Josie’s mother couldn’t care any less about her, but fortunately there are some people around her who do care about her in their own ways. The woman who runs the brothel knows she’s smart and frequently helps her, and some of the other prostitutes appreciate her and treat her well. But the people that treat her best are Charlie, an older bookshop owner, and Charlie’s son Patrick, who’s only a little older than Josie. She sometimes spend the night in the loft of the shop to be somewhere other than the brothel. 

But Josie’s got a million things going against her. It doesn’t matter to most people who she really is, but only where she comes from. When she and Patrick manage to befriend a rich college girl who doesn’t know Josie’s past, Josie starts dreaming of going to Smith College. But her regular, everyday life is throwing obstacles up right and left, with things falling apart. But Josie is unflinching and resourceful, and although you have no idea how she could possibly make this all work, you have no doubt she’ll figure out a way. 

I read this book in the middle of my 2021 reading slump and still devoured it in three days—even though I’m not a big historical fiction reader. I loved this book, and really, despite the fact that Josie (fictionally) lived seventy years ago, she’s as strong a female character as in any modern YA story. 

Review: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary book coverI don’t often review middle grade here (I don’t often read middle grade, either), but I’m making an exception for this book because it was so good. It also felt more borderline lower-YA to me.

It’s 1947 right before the British were to leave India and Nisha and her twin brother Amil live with their Hindu father and his mother in far northwest India. Their Muslim mother died in childbirth. But when the leaders decide that the best solution is to split the country into two, Pakistan and India, they find themselves in the wrong place for their father’s religion. Their father is a doctor so they live in a nice house, but eventually he decides that it’s more dangerous to stay and they leave on foot, heading toward the border.

For those who don’t know, Indian Partition was a horrible, bloody, and shameful time in South Asian history. In the Punjab regions of both Pakistan and India, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were all killing each other over nothing, really. They killed each other because others had killed their families. Muslims would stop the trains heading south from Pakistan and massacre people, and Hindus would stop the trains heading north into Pakistan and massacre people. People of the “wrong” religion who stayed put in either East or West Punjab were also killed.

Nisha was given a diary and started writing letters every night to her mother about her day in them. So we see her account of everything leading up to their departure, and what they go through trying to make it to new India. She’s a wise and observant girl, shy with strangers and desperate to know more about her mother. It’s impossible not to like her, or her brother, who struggles in school but is a talented artist (as was their mother).

This is a really moving book that teaches about a significant point in history without being preachy. Nisha asks important questions that will make readers think. I highly recommend this for fans of middle grade in general, but I also think it will appeal to those who like historical fiction in general.

Review: The Radical Element (A Tyranny of Petticoats, #2) edited by Jessica Spotswood

The Radical Element book coverThis book is a collection of short stories set in various points of US history ranging from 1838 to 1984. The stories are all about girls bucking the system in some way, but those ways vary widely over the book. The stories are all realistic except for a couple that have some magical realism elements. The stories also run the gamut on the diversity spectrum, including girls of several different religions, several protagonists of color (and different ethnicities, too), at least one lesbian, one character in a wheelchair, and another on the autism spectrum.

“Daughter of the Book” by Dahlia Adler is about a Jewish girl stuck in Savannah, Georgia in the mid 19th century, where she’s forbidden to do the one thing she really wants to do—study. She’s restricted by both societal expectations—she should be sewing etc.—and actual religious limitations—women and girls were not allowed to study the Talmud, which is what all the men and boys around her were studying. I could definitely relate to her desire to study and would have felt as stifled as she did if I’d been in her situation, but the devotion to religion is definitely not something I relate to. Still, I enjoyed it.

The second story is “You’re a Stranger Here” by Mackenzi Lee. This one is about the early days of the Mormon community, starting right after Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed when the Mormons were in Nauvoo, Illinois. The main character works as a printer’s apprentice and she has to protect the original Book of Commandments. It’s an interesting story about a Mormon teen not entirely sure about her community and what she does for it, anyway.

“The Magician” by Erin Bowman is about a girl in the wild west of 1958. She’s masquerading as a boy and has become a card shark, getting all the newcomers who came to town. She doesn’t know her history but has an enigmatic note that leads her to believe she might have family in California. The story’s about how she’s going to get there.

The next story is “Lady Firebrand,” written by Megan Shepherd and set during the Civil War.  The main character is in Charleston, South Carolina visiting relatives. Unbeknownst to the confederate family, she’s not just some “pitiful girl” in a wheelchair. No, she has real skills and puts them to use at night disrupt shipments of commodities. She can’t do it without the help of her free black maid, however. This was one of my favorites of the collection.

Next comes “Step Right Up” by Jessica Spotswood. It’s set in Tulsa, Indian Territory (this was pre-statehood for Oklahoma) in 1905. The main character dreams of joining the circus as a high-wire walker and needs to make it happen because of family issues. I liked this one, too, even though the circus is historically sort of evil.

“Glamour” by Anna-Marie McLemore is set in LA of the 1920s. It’s an interesting one that uses a small dose of magic to make a point about the rampant racism of LA then (and hints to now). The main character is desperate to be one of Hollywood’s stars, but she’s Mexican so that would never fly. She uses some family magic to glamour her face so she looks white but has to deal with the consequences.

The following story is “Better for All the World” by Marieke Nijkamp. This one’s set in 1927 in Washington, D.C. It features a girl who’s clearly on the autism spectrum who wants to become a lawyer. It starts with her attending a trial over the forced sterilization of a woman deemed mentally deficient and identifying with the woman because of her own “differentness”. So it’s personal, but she’s also interested in the proceedings. She meets a young man at the court and he challenges her (though she challenges him right back).

“When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough” by Dhonielle Clayton is the other story that uses magical realism. The premise is that the main character and her family have eternal life by consuming moonlight. But she’s not sure that staying under the radar is the right thing to do since it’s the middle of World War II. They are black and her family feels like there’s no reason to get involved in a war when America treats black people so badly. She has to decide what to do.

“The Belle of the Ball” by Sarvenaz Tash is set in Brooklyn in 1952. The main character dreams of becoming a humor writer even though that’s no easy task for a girl of that time (or of any time, really). The story is steeped in I Love Lucy references, which I’m sure some people will love (they went over my head). The main character’s mom is set on her being presented at a debutante ball. So she has to go through all that, but it doesn’t keep her from seizing an opportunity to get noticed as a writer.

The next story is “Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave” by Stacy Lee, which is set in Oakland, California in 1955. This one deals with a girl from Hawaii who is of mixed descent, including Chinese and Japanese. She is going to audition to be the face/mascot of a sugar brand even though she knows what she’s going to face in terms of overt racism.

Fast forward to the early 1970s for “The Birth of Susi Go-Go” by Meg Medina. It’s set in Queens and features another stifled girl with a conservative mom. She’s dreading the upheaval that will happen when her grandparents arrive from Cuba. But she ends up using that moment to redefine herself instead of getting shoved to the side like she feared.

“Take Me With U” by Sara Farizan is about a teen girl from Iran staying with family in Boston during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. She feels so out of place and just hangs out with her six-year-old cousin. She meets a hip girl from an upstairs apartment and gets introduced to all kinds of music and it really opens up her world in ways she’d never have expected. This ended up being one of my favorite in the collection, too.

Overall this was an enjoyable book with a bunch of very different stories. But they all remind us of how much we share in common despite the time period and who we are. If you’re a fan of historical YA or YA short story collections, this one should make you happy—especially if you like to see girls empowering themselves.

Review: Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

Orphan Monster Spy book coverThis is a book that came to me from one of those YA book clubs I belong to as I’d never heard of it. But I’m actually surprised there isn’t a little more hype around it because it’s very good and it’s got a believable badass girl in it. I guess historical fiction isn’t where it’s at right now.

Sarah is a 15-year-old blonde Jewish girl in 1939 Germany (actually I think Austria at the very beginning), which is not a good place for her. After a riveting opening scene where Sarah runs from the just-wrecked car her mom drove through a checkpoint, she makes a bold escape and encounters a man who becomes her “uncle.” He’s an English spy and has an assignment for her: become friends with a girl—Elsa—at an elite boarding school. Elsa’s father is considered a scientific mastermind and is working on the atomic bomb (they didn’t call it that yet, though—it’s “the grapefruit bomb” in the book).

Once Sarah—now Ursula—gets to the boarding school, she finds her task deeply difficult. There’s a social order at the school and she’s very much at the bottom and will have to fight her way to the top to get to the girl she needs to befriend. There are many, many obstacles in her way. One is her friendship with a girl they call “Mouse” for her meekness. More importantly, she’s got to impress the boss girl of the school’s tough-girl posse. Or fight her for the position. While in retrospect some of the middle of the book might have been dragged out longer than strictly necessary, overall I was completely pulled into the story and Sarah’s plight. Many times, her situation seemed impossible.

The characters in this book are solid. Sarah is very well-drawn as complex, sufficiently troubled for a girl with her experiences, and believably tough and up to the role. The spy who effectively hires her, Captain Floyd, is also a good character even though he’s not necessarily always likable. But he’s committed to his mission, which will ultimately help people like Sarah so we know he’s basically a good guy. Mouse is not deeply developed, but she’s perfect as a side character. Elsa herself is very flawed and her behavior seems a little weird until the full story comes out. So while she’s not super-developed, it works for the story.

The overall plot is also solid even if the middle is a little squishy (I just think some of the obstacles could have been removed/simplified, but that’s me). I also think the world building is done well. You really get a sense of Germany at the time.

The really fascinating thing about this book is that while it’s set against against Nazi Germany and the pending Holocaust, it’s really about something else altogether. This doesn’t become clear until very late in the book, but it’s been expertly set up. The author’s note at the end really highlights this. I don’t want to give it away, but one of his main points is that while people are quick to criticize the regular people of Nazi Germany for standing by and letting all the atrocities happen, we are standing by right now and letting everyday atrocities happen in our own countries. Just because these are smaller-scale doesn’t mean that we are any more excused for letting them happen.

Orphan Monster Spy is a very good book. If you enjoy reading WW II novels, this one will surprise you because it’s different. And if you’re not generally into that genre, consider checking it out anyway. It’s got a great message.

Review: Dread Nation (Dread Nation #1) by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation book coverThis is really a remarkable and very powerful book. First off, it’s a very engaging and exciting story with some action. You’ve got the Civil War setting and you’ve got zombies. I’m pretty sure that Civil War era isn’t a common setting in YA historical fiction, so that’s a nice thing right there. But Ireland has really twisted that setting with her introduction of zombies, or shamblers as they call them in the book (which is, by the way, an awesome term).

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the dead rose up off the battlefield and that started the epidemic. The Civil War ended because the North and the South basically needed to band together to fight the shamblers. Slavery is illegal, but it’s not exactly a time of respect for black people. And Ireland did something else really interesting—she took the concept of the schools that they used to forcibly send Native American kids to back in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. These were horrible places where the primary goal was to eradicate Native American culture. Ireland took that concept and created combat schools for Native Americans and black people to learn how to effectively fight the shamblers. Because apparently it’s their duty to do that while the white people get to mostly laze around.

This is all a great and very creative setup, but what really makes the book is the main character. Jane McKeene has everything you could want in a protagonist. She’s smart and has serious moxie—you’d have to be a pretty weird person not to like her. Some of this is her training, but most of it is just who she is. She is a black, which seriously limits the roles she can play in life. But she doesn’t let that stop her. She was born to a white woman in Kentucky who was married to a rich man off in the war. I didn’t expect to get the full story on that but we do near the end, and it surprised me.

Okay, so that’s the basic setup. But there’s more to it because Jane gets herself mixed up into some intrigue. The school she attends—Miss Preston’s School of Combat—is just outside Baltimore, which claims to be shambler-free. But all is not as it seems. After a bold rescue of an entire room of people, Jane ends up getting the attention of the mayor of the city. Soon she is paired up with a boy named Jackson and a girl from her school, Katherine, on an adventure none of them wants. Fortunately, Jane’s there to save the day in her own way.

Let me just say that Jane’s voice is amazing. She’s so distinctive but is absolutely believable as a girl in her circumstances. When asked “Wherever did they find you?” she answers, “At the junction of hard luck and bad times,” because that’s what her momma used to say. She’s pretty unflappable, but even she has moments where the horrors of the attitudes of the times make her a little emotionally vulnerable: when Jane and other black kids are jogging into a new situation, she thinks:

Old Professor Ghering called Negroes livestock the night of the fateful lecture. I can’t help but think of him as we scurry along.

I loved that moment (for a character in a book) because it shows just how awful that racist climate is—even someone who knows better falls prey to shame. It’s insidious. She’s a very complex character.

Some of the other characters are also fairly well-developed. Katherine in particular is interesting because she’s walking a fine line that really challenges her. She’s very different from Jane at the beginning of the book, but less so at the end. Her circumstances make her different partially because she can pass for white. A couple of the other characters that mattered were Jackson and Gideon, and I have to say that they could both have been developed a bit more. I wanted more of both of them.

I should mention that Jane is technically bisexual because this has been another touted feature of the book. I say technically because it wasn’t integral to the story at all—it felt tacked on. Like, ooh, let’s make her bi, too! Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with doing that, but it’s just not interesting or admirable.

Race, on the other hand, is absolutely intrinsic to the story. No way could this book have been written if race wasn’t addressed head-on. Ireland is unapologetic about it, too. The racism is painful and very real. A preacher in the book says:

“I know that you can deal with the obstinate Negroes as long as you remember that they are, at their heart, children. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ as the Scripture tells us.”

On the risk for black people attempting to pass as white, Jane thinks, “There’s nothing white folks hate more than realizing they accidentally treated a Negro like a person.” The woman who raised Jane (a former slave at her house) once told her about the “bad old days”:

It was bad then, Janie. A different kind of bad, but bad all the same. … So don’t let nobody tell you any different about the old days. Life is hard now, nothing but suffering, but some kinds of suffering is easier to bear than others.

This will be a hard book for some to read, but I still think it’s worth it. It tells us some truths about the times even while doing so through the screen of zombies.

Review: What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

What I Saw and How I Lied book coverWhat I Saw and How I Lied is an interesting historical, set just after WW II. It features quietly bold 15-year-old Evie, whose mother is a bombshell while Evie herself is a bit plain. And she’s not happy about it. Her stepfather is a charming sort but when he gets frustrated by something, they take off in the car and head from Brooklyn to Palm Beach, Florida. There, Evie learns a lot of surprising and not-so-nice things about the world and her parents. She also meets a man who she falls for, despite the fact that he’s 8 years older. It eventually seems to her that pretty much everything she believed about her parents and their life together was a lie. Then she’s put in a position no one wants to be: she has to betray someone—but will it be her parents or the man she’s fallen in love with? And what about the truth—how important is that compared to family loyalty?

The story is told with a lot of foreshadowing. We know from the beginning that something bad has happened and that Evie is going back to tell us what, with references to the future spread throughout. For instance, in Chapter 1:

They knew who we were; they’d seen our pictures in the paper. We knew they’d be saying, Look at them eating toast—how can they be so heartless?


Now I had to look at it again. This time without me in it, wanting things to go my way.

Clearly, Evie imagines herself having grown up in the course of the book, which she definitely does.

But there’s this fantastic line that I think pretty much sums up being a teenager:

I was an adult now, just like her. But feeling grown up? I discovered something right then: It comes and goes. I was still afraid of my mom.

The fact that we know that Evie and her parents are considered guilty of something, even though we don’t know what, makes us pay special attention to them as the story unfolds. Neither is very likable to me and I enjoyed watching Evie’s perspective on her family change over time. Character development of all the major players is very good.

Blundell does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of post-war U.S. with great language and the mindset. As I mentioned, Evie is a little spunky in her way, even though she is a girl of her time. Here’s a line from poem she and her friend memorized:

Your virtue you must never squander

But Evie’s first thought is that her friend has seven siblings, so her mom was clearly squandering her virtue “all over the place.”

This isn’t a long book, but it wasn’t a fast read for me. It was more of a slow burn, which meant I savored the sense of foreboding all the more. For those interested in the horrible aspects of the past that Blundell explores in the book, she includes a short guide to finding out more. Finally, I should mention that the book won the National Book Award. Overall, I recommend it to anyone who likes mid-20th-century stories.

Review: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree book coverThe Lie Tree is a fascinating and unusual book. The idea of the lie tree itself is interesting and creative. The novel touches on feminism, the nature of lies and truth, growing up, knowing yourself, familial love, and fairness. There’s a sense of foreboding throughout that escalates and escalates until the climax. It took me a while to read, but I think that’s because it made me so nervous for the main character, Faith Sunderly, that I would have to set it down. As I neared the end of the book, it was hard to see what would happen next. It’s usually categorized as dark fantasy, but I’d say it’s at least pseudo-horror for the effect it had on me.

The book is historical, set in England in the late 19th century, during the societal and scientific upheaval that came after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Faith is fourteen and she’s just moved with her family to an isolated island called Vane because her father is in the middle of a scandal in which the public reviles him as a fraud for something related to his work as a natural scientist, though exactly what happened isn’t revealed for a while. The plan is for him to work on uncovering a new fossil, but soon news of the scandal reaches the island, too, and everything turns ugly.

One of the big themes is the evil of gender-based restrictions and expectations, something which has clearly been improved on in the intervening century-plus, but which girls and women nowadays still face. Faith’s father bluntly tells her that she’ll never be able to use her brain because she’s a girl—she’ll just have to behave well. A quote from the book that a lot of people cite sums things up well: “There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at the table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too.” Faith doesn’t want to behave. She doesn’t accept the restrictions everyone places on her and instead gets angry and fights back in the only way she can—quietly and a little passive-aggressively, changing the course of events on the island.

Faith’s father initially does respect her intelligence and commitment to science so she loves him and despises her societally-acceptable mother, so when her father is found dead in a presumed suicide, she’s set on figuring out what really happened. In the process, she explores the power of lies, learns to respect her mother for making do under crappy circumstances, and explores relationships with others. Eventually she does understand what happened, as well as everything she needs to about her father and herself.

Faith is a compelling character. One interesting thing about her is that she isn’t overly likable. She doesn’t always do sympathetic things, and sometimes I wished she’d make other choices. But her choices were always consistent with who she was, what her options were, and how her anger informed them. I should mention that the writing itself is lovely. I highly recommend the book.