Monday, July 18, 2011

Fallen Grace

By Mary Hooper. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010.

The year is 1861 in London, England. Grace Parkes is fifteen years old and lives with her older sister Lily. Orphaned at a young age, they live a life of extreme hardship. Each day, they struggle to earn money selling watercress just to buy food to eat. On top of that, even though Lily is older, she possesses the mind of a child, so Grace must care for her for the rest of her life. While living at a training establishment where she was to learn to be a teacher, Grace is abused by a benefactor, and becomes pregnant. Unfortunately, the baby boy dies in childbirth, and Grace is heartbroken. She takes him to Brookwood Cemetery, so he can have a proper burial.

While at Brookwood, Grace meets two people who will play important parts in her life. One is James Solent, a legal clerk, who offers to help Grace if she ever needs assistance. The second is Mrs. Unwin, who runs a funeral business along with her husband. She offers Grace the position of being a "mute" at funerals, but Grace is appalled with the idea, and turns her down. After discovering the boarding house they live in is to be torn down, they are homeless with nowhere to go. Desperate for employment and a roof over their heads, Grace goes to Mrs. Unwin, who takes both sisters on. Unbeknowst to Grace, the Unwins have an ulterior motive for taking in the Parkes' sisters. Grace and Lily are the recipients of a large inheritance left by their father, who died in America, but they have no knowledge of this. The Unwins have an evil plan to steal the girls' inheritance, but will Grace find out about this in time? Will she be able to secure a safe, rich future for herself and Lily?

This novel is rich in historical details, and the storytelling is captivating. I didn't think I could endure reading any more heartbreaking trials these sisters had to endure, but Grace's strength gave me hope this story would end happily. A beautiful story of survival, determination and perseverance, this is a wonderful read.

Monday, July 11, 2011


By Cathy Ostlere. New York: Razorbill, 2011.

Karma is a magnificent book that must be read! Told in free verse and using a diary format, I was immediately drawn to this story from the first page, and couldn't put it down! This story takes place in 1984. Maya is 15 years old. She is half-Hindu and half-Sikh and living in Canada with her parents. After her mother's suicide, she and her father travel from Canada to New Delhi, India with her mother's ashes. It is October 31, and Indira Gandhi is assassinated, and Maya and her father find themselves stuck in a turbulent, dangerous setting. Maya becomes separated from her father, and decides to get on a train to escape the danger. Heading north, Maya witnesses an act so terrible and brutal, she becomes mute, extremely traumatized by her experience. She is "rescued" by Parvati, a doctor, who sends Maya to her family's home. There, she meets Parvati's brother, Sandeep, who falls in love with Maya, and tries to coax her out of her sadness and get her to speak. Maya and Sandeep go on a journey to see if they can locate Maya's father, and so karma comes in to the story. I'll leave it at that, so I don't give anything away.

This story is so powerful, and the use of free verse allows the reader an intimate look into the characters. I really loved the use of a diary as the format. It pulled me into the lives of Maya and Sandeep in a way that I don't think a traditional narrative would. Combined with historical events, and rich cultural details, this is an epic story! I highly recommend this heart-wrenching, beautiful story of journey and self-discovery. You won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Between Shades of Gray

By Ruta Sepetys. New York: Philomel Books, 2011.

Let me say, this story is not a pretty one. Yet, it is beautifully written. Based on true events and the author's family experience, this book needs to be read. It's 1941, and fifteen year old Lina lives a comfortable life in Lithuania. A talented artist, she is looking forward to going to art school. One night, Soviet guards invade her home, taking Lina, her mother and her younger brother onto a packed train with other deportees, off to a labor camp in Siberia. Her father has been separated from them, and he is being taken to a prison camp, where he is sentenced to death. This story unflinchingly tells the horrors Lithuanians and others endured on the train, and also during their time in Siberia. Lina and her family are then taken further into nothingness towards the North Pole to another labor camp. Lina and her family struggle to survive with nothing more than hope they will be returned to Lithuania and the love they have for each other.

I found this extremely disturbing to read, but it is so well written, that I was compelled to continue the journey with Lina. I didn't remember this part of World War II history, and it was disturbing to read the atrocities the Soviet soldiers inflicted on people during their "cleansing" of the Baltic region. I think the cover image captures the disparity between the "ugliness" of the story (barbed wire surround the border) and the beauty of the writing and ultimate hope towards the end of the story (a lone green plant growing out of the stark cold of the snow). I highly recommend this haunting book. It will stay with you long after you finish reading it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Are You Awake?

By Sophie Blackall. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011.

It's the middle of the night. It's dark. All of a sudden a little voice says "Mom? Mom?" I'm sure moms and dads throughout the years have been woken up by their little one who can't sleep. The same is true in this delightful story. Edward can't go to sleep, so he wakes his mom up and starts with a question: "Are you awake?" After his sleepy mom says "No," he asks "Why aren't you awake?" Mom matter-of-factly answers "Because I'm asleep." And so begins a long series of questions and answers until the sun comes up and Edward finally falls asleep just as his father (who is a pilot) returns home. The story ends with Edward asking his sleeping father "Dad? Dad? Are you awake?"

This book is a joy to read! The questions and answers demonstrate the curiousness of children and the resigned parent who must try to answer them while still being half-asleep. What also makes this book wonderful are the illustrations. They are soft, conveying the bedtime setting, but I love how Edward's eyes are made bright against the greyness of the night setting, reflecting his inner curiosity and surprising alertness at 4am! As the night passes are morning sun comes out, the pages get brighter. Such a brilliant book! This is perfect for sharing one-on-one.