In my experience, most teens won’t even look at hist. fic. unless they have to read it for a school assignment. You know, stuff like My Brother Sam is SO Dead, or Johnny TREmain (as in TREmendously booorrrriiinnggg!) Oh, trust me, my adolescent friends, I have been there, and I know your pain. That’s why I’m sending some stories your way that promise action, mystery and in some cases, some good old fashioned gore. Sure, you may not know much about history, but learning it from these juicy fictional accounts is way more fun than memorizing any old, dry textbook. And won’t you impress Mr. or Mrs. “I’ve-Been-Teaching-History-Since-Before-WWI” when you display your dazzling knowledge of Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, or pagan Iceland in the time of the Vikings. Don’t be afraid to shout out to some of those dried-up, monotonous-monotone history teachers just what kind of hist. fic. you want to read: the kind that doesn’t put you to sleep! And maybe, just maybe, between all of you and me, we can start a revolution of revised historical fiction reading lists. Viva la Hist. Fic. for Hipsters!
Historical Fiction for Hipsters
Liz and Bean are used to being on their own. When their aspiring singer mom takes off for a few days every now and then to follow her dreams, the two girls just hunker down, make chicken pot pies in the toaster oven and tell anyone who asks that she’s just visiting a friend in L.A. and will be back soon. But this time, Mom’s been gone for almost two weeks. The chicken potpies are running low and the neighbors are starting to sniff around. Liz makes the call that the sisters need to hightail it to their Uncle Tinsley’s house in Virginia before they get trundled off to foster care. Once they get to 1970’s small town Byler, they find a safe haven with Uncle Tinsley, an eccentric but kind old man who used to own the cotton mill. Mom visits, but then heads out to New York to scout singing opportunities and apartments, leaving the girls to start school in Byler. Liz and Bean love Byler, but the small town isn’t as idyllic as they first thought. The high school is being integrated for the first time, and racial tensions are high. The girls also find themselves stuck in the middle of a nasty feud between Uncle Tinsely and Mr. Maddox, the mill foreman. When Liz publically accuses Maddox of some downright dirty behavior, the incident sets off a firestorm of rumors, gossip and backstabbing in the small town that changes both girls’ lives forever. How will the sisters turn the tide of negativity that has risen up against them because of Maddox’s lies? And where is their mom when they need her the most? By turns witty, warm and provocative, this all ages read by the author of The Glass Castle is a perfect choice for your high school mother-daughter book club or to throw in your beach bag this summer. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you June 2013.
Blessed Island is a truly stress-free place. There are no cars to pollute the air with smoke and noise, no cell phones to distract people from real connections. It’s so peaceful that reporter Eric Seven just can’t seem to motivate himself to collect the research he needs to write an article about the remote island community and it’s rumored fountain of youth. The villagers are friendly and generous, and there’s always another cup of tea to sip, another delicious meal to eat, another nap to take. Soon he’s been there for several days and it’s getting harder and harder to remember why he came. All he knows is that it had something to do with flowers, and the young woman named Merle. Eric feels certain they’ve met before, although he doesn’t know how since Merle’s never left Blessed Island and he’s never been. Or has he? In seven cleverly intertwined short stories, author Marcus Sedgwick weaves a classic yet wholly original tale of blessings and curses, love and loyalty, bitterness and revenge. Each story is like an interlocking puzzle piece that forms a fascinating picture by the immensely satisfying end. As a reader, I was completely captivated by the storytelling and as a writer, utterly blown away with the razor sharp execution of plot, clues and character. It’s an absolute stunner of a mystery and romance and I will be madly recommending it to everyone I know.
Lady Sybella’s life is a living nightmare. Trained as an assassin by the killer nuns of the convent of St. Mortain (God of Death) she has been assigned to spy on the house of Count d’Albret, a noble who is staging a deadly coup against the young duchess of Brittany. The count is notoriously brutal, simply murdering any and all who oppose him. Sybella’s life is constantly on the line as she gathers information to send back to her Mother Superior, who is on the side of the duchess. She knows that if she is found out, a fate worse than death awaits her. Because Sybella is not just an ordinary spy. She is also d’Albret’s abused daughter. When an order comes from the convent that she must free a highly valued prisoner from d’Albret’s dungeon, she uses the command as an excuse to escape with her wounded charge and join her assassin sister Ismae. This one decision sets her destiny spinning in a direction she could have never anticipated, a future where love and death are intertwined and at any moment she could be utterly destroyed by one or the other. Because war is coming. And d’Albret is used to winning. This smashing second volume in His Fair Assassins series (volume 1= Grave Mercy) is way more bloody and fast paced than the first but just as deliciously juicy. Sybella is a terrific heroine—damaged, self-doubting, angry as hell and ready to take her rage out on the world at large—until love comes along and turns her wrath into righteousness. Though you could read this one as a stand alone, why would you want to? I’d advise digging into Grave Mercy before taking a stab at Dark Triumph. An awfully good sequel to what is shaping up to be a spectacular series. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2013.
“My mother’s a prostitute. Not the filthy, street walking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.” In 1950’s New Orleans, Josie couldn’t be more different from her mother, a woman who cares about herself first and her daughter only when she manages to remember she has one. Luckily for Josie, her mother’s madam Willie, a smart, sassy businesswoman, has always looked out for Josie and kept her separate from her mother’s sordid life. But now Josie has graduated from high school and wants to be more than just a bookstore clerk and Willie’s sometimes housekeeper. She dreams of attending Smith College in Massachusetts and escaping the sleaziness of the Big Easy forever. But when a wealthy tourist is murdered in the French Quarter and Josie’s mother and mobster boyfriend are fingered for it, Josie becomes caught up in a dangerous game of cat and mouse that could bring a messy end to her college dreams. And there is also the little matter of deciding between the two boys she’s grown up with and loves for different reasons: Patrick because he shares her passion for books and reading, Jesse because shares her feeling of being an outsider always looking in. Can Josie flee her painful past in order to forge a bright new future? Or will her illicit origins dog her footsteps for the rest of her life? Ruta Sepetys, author of the achingly sad Between Shades of Gray, has penned another unusual and provocative historical fiction that goes straight to the heart. But don’t expect heart-pounding action, this is a smart, slow-boiling thriller that focuses more on identity and relationships than strip teases and gun play. If you like the character-driven mysteries of Judy Blundell and Kathryn Miller Haines, then you’ll want to snatch this one up from your nearest library, bookstore or e-reader when it arrives in February 2013.
“Perhaps one day women might be able to to choose their husbands with no thought of money and position, but not in this day and age in Lesser Hoo, Yorkshire, England.” In Regency-era England, seventeen year old Althea Crawley is beautiful and broke. Her widowed mother has a falling down castle to her name and that’s about it. Factor in a dependent little brother and two greedy, homely stepsisters and the situation is clear: to save her loved ones from financial ruin and escape her nasty step sibs, Althea will have to snag a wealthy husband. There are no shortage of eligible bachelors in the neighborhood, but since all Althea has to bring to the union is a pretty face, they aren’t exactly knocking down the castle door. Enter handsome Lord Boring (how much do I love that character name?!) a new arrival to Lesser Hoo. LB has the looks and the money that Althea is sure will make her and her family very, very happy. Luckily, he seems to feel the same. But if she’s so sure that Lord Boring is The One, why does his irritating, argumentative business partner Mr. Fredericks keep popping up in her thoughts? If you look under the definition of “delightful” in the dictionary, you will find a picture of this adorable tome. Full of sparkling wit, wonderfully bumbling misunderstandings and unrequited love for DAYS, this lovely homage to Regency romances will leave you giggling and swooning in equal measure. I have a distinct feeling that Patrice Kindl had as much fun writing this frothy confection as I had reading it. A must read for all you die-hard Jane Austen & Dodie Smith fans.
In 1975, Arn Chorn-Pond was a carefree and enterprising Cambodian kid who snuck into movies with his brother, listened to the Beatles and played games of chance on the street to make money for candy and coconut cake. Then the Khmer Rouge came to town. The rebel military group had won control of Cambodia, and they began ordering Arn’s family and neighbors to pack up and leave because the Americans who had been at war with Vietnam were now coming to bomb them. The rebels would protect them and bring them back to their homes in three days. Frightened, but also a little excited, Arn joins the mass exodus out of the city of Battambang. But what he doesn’t know is that the Khmer Rouge are lying. There are no attacking Americans. What waits for him and thousands of other children in the country and fields outside of town isn’t salvation but fear, starvation and death at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge who believe that in order to build a new Communist society, they must first destroy the old one. So begins Arn’s horrific odyssey through a Khmer Rouge work camp, training as a child soldier and eventual escape to the United States. He quickly learns that showing emotion can be deadly: “I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.” But while he finds physical safety, will he ever be able to forget the friends and family he was forced to leave behind? “…after all the thing I been through, now being rescue is something I also have to survive.” This true story of heroism and fortitude was related by Arn himself to the award-winning author Patricia McCormick, who wove his words into a fictionalized account of real events. The result is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting narrative that demonstrates humanity’s enduring tendency towards hope, even in the darkest of circumstances. I was completely undone by the simplicity and power of this book, couldn’t stop thinking about it for DAYS and already anticipate that it will be wearing several shiny metals on it’s cover come YA book award season. In other words, an absolute must read! (To see an interview between Arn and McCormick and to find out more about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Killing Fields, click here)
Chester Kates is a hardscrabble teenage orphan who lives on whiskey, pancakes and fistfights in a desolate corner of the Old West. It’s not much of a life, so when a shady railroad exec offers him 40 bucks to burn down a ghost town called Whale that sits in the railroad’s future path, Chester jumps at the chance. But when he gets there, he finds that Whale is not entirely deserted. It is still home to a few souls who were fortunate enough to have survived the mysterious fatal plague that laid waste to Whale’s meager population. Chester teams up with Caroline, the pretty daughter of a crazy miner named Whitley Barber who may or may not have hidden a valuable treasure somewhere in Whale. Together they try to convince Barber to uncover his loot and leave the doomed township before Chester burns it to the ground. But the old miner won’t budge, and when Chester discovers the evil reason why, he is forced to make a terrible decision between love and justice. This imaginative graphic novel is a bone-chilling blend of horror, mystery and Western that will keep you guessing until the very last page. JT Petty’s dark story has more twists and turns than a bucking bronco, while Hilary Florido’s sketchy manga-light artwork conveys the inhospitable bleakness of home on the range–which is quickly shown to be the opposite of the cozy cowboy song. If you find your appetite whetted for more menacing Old West/horror mash-ups, try The Sixth Gun or American Vampire.
Cecily is a spoiled brat who bats her eyes at Daddy to get her what she wants. So she’s none too pleased when he accepts a job in a bad neighborhood far away from all her best friends. The good news is she’ll have servants to order around. The bad news is they don’t listen very well, especially Gwinny, a local girl with a snotty attitude who’s been hired to sweep the floors and help out in the kitchen. If Cecily has her way, she will teach Gwinny some manners if it’s the last thing she does. But what Cecily doesn’t understand is that she may not have the upper hand for long. Because this is no 90210 high school catfight between Brenda and Kelly. This is 1293 Wales, where the English have seized uneasy control of the Welsh people. Cecily is English. Gwinny is Welsh. Corrupt English businessmen like Cecily’s father are taking advantage of the Welsh’s vulnerable position by taxing them until they are literally starving in the streets. The Welsh people have nothing left to lose, and rebellion is in the air. What will happen to these two young women from opposite sides of the moat if English rule is toppled? There is no love lost between them. But maybe in the midst of chaos they will find a way to show each other a bit of grace. This fabulous hist. fic. showcases a time and place I’ll bet you know very little about, and Cecily and Gwinny’s wonderfully wrought first person voices will no doubt inspire you to dig up more. I was bowled over by the detailed and often humorous writing, and it is the first medieval fiction I’ve read in recent history that could give a little award winner titled Catherine Called Birdy a run for it’s money. A bone-cracking good read with enough blood, battles and hair pulling to intrigue even the biggest hist. fic. haters among you.
In 1485 Brittany, seventeen-year-old Ismae is rescued from an arranged marriage to a brutish pig farmer by a hedge witch who recognizes Ismae for who she is: a daughter of Mortain, god of Death. She is bundled off to the convent of St. Mortain, where is she trained by killer nuns to become a first rate assassin who specializes in poisons. She swears utter obedience to the convent and it’s hard core Mother Superior in exchange for a new life free from the demands of men. Once her education is complete, her first assignment is to pose as the mistress of a high-ranking advisor named Duval in the court of Brittany’s young duchess Anne, whose rule is being challenged by many powerful enemies. The convent is closely aligned to the duchess; her fate may well become theirs. So Ismae’s job is two-fold: to report to the Mother Superior everything she observes at court that may threaten the duchess, but also to spy on Duval, who the Mother suspects may be a traitor. This is all fine by Ismae, who’s been chomping at the bit to get out into the field and murder some deserving villain. But before long she is caught up in complicated court politics and suddenly things don’t seem quite so black and white. She finds herself questioning the Mother Superior’s directions and forming dangerous opinions of her own. But worst of all? She thinks she might be falling for the very man she has been assigned to spy on. When the dreaded order to murder someone close to her comes by crow from the convent, Ismae has a terrible choice to make: maintain her allegiance to the organization that saved her life, or throw away the only security she has ever known to follow her treacherous heart. This epic supernatural hist. fic. went on a touch too long for me as an adult reader, but I suspect the voluminous length will be no problem for you teen folk, who seem to never want a good book to end. And make no mistake, this is a very good book, full of backstabbing politics, duplicitous double crosses and back-room-deals gone bad. I liked it best when Ismae was efficiently going about her killing business. The assassination scenes are so riveting and suspenseful, you’ll find yourself guiltily paging ahead to the next murder. I found the poison bits especially intriguing, and was fascinated when Ismae was cataloging her toxic library of potions and filing away how each poison worked and what awful symptoms the victim could expect to suffer. And tucked between the swoony romance and stone cold killings, there’s also meaty themes about gender and class in the Middle Ages, and the very limited ways women were allowed to function in society. Even the royal duchess Anne who Ismae is fighting to protect has no real authority but is just a pawn being pulled back and forth between groups of powerful men who don’t care about her but only want what she represents. If historical fiction has been your poison in the past, then I highly recommend this terrific tome as the antidote.