Every Heart a Doorway [Book Review]

             Seanan McGuire. Every Heart A Doorway. N.Y.: Tor, 2016.

            Entering another world by stepping through a portal is a common enough trope in fantasy literature, with origins as old as faerie itself. So too is the boarding school for precocious preternatural students, from Hogwarts and Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children to the Xavier School For Gifted Youngsters and many, many more. The reader is in familiar territory accompanying Nancy Whitman on her first day to Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children. Nancy, and all her classmates, have been sent to reacclimatize to the  so-called ‘real’ world after returning from a variety of distinct, unique, impossible lands. Nancy traveled to the Halls of the Dead. Nancy and nearly all of her classmates want nothing more than to get back to their otherworlds, a world they now call home.

It’s a slim book, ~169 pages, and I might be forgiven for wondering if my local library had mis-shelved it in general fiction when it belonged in Young Adult. Until page 40, when Nancy’s new roommate inquires if she likes a handsome classmate by abruptly asking, “Do you want to fuck him?”  The roommate also asks her opinions on masturbation. It’s not the topics themselves that preclude Y.A., but the tone and ease with which they are mentioned.  They are not the focus; there is no exploration of themes.  It’s startlingly matter-of-fact.

A murder mystery ensues. One after another, students are being murdered and dismembered— one for her eyes, one for her hands. As the new girl lately returned from the Halls of the Dead, Nancy is the likely suspect. The plot is slightly predictable and the point-of-view unexpectedly variable, but that doesn’t matter.  Suspension-of-disbelief transcends such novelcraft imperfections.  As with most portal fantasies and precocious schools, the quest for belonging is what unites character and reader.

A stellar, engrossing book appreciated all the more by this busy reader for its slender length.  A winner of numerous awards and honors including an ALA Alex Awards Winner (Adult Books for Young Adults); Goodreads Choice Awards; Library Journal Best Books of the Year; and both a Nebula Awards Nominee and a Hugo Award Nominee.

A series is planned. Book 2, Down Among The Sticks And Bones, is expected this June.

 

 

Bonus: Author website with amusing alternate biographies.

Read an excerpt, courtesy of publisher Macmillan.

The Snow Child: Thawing Frozen Hearts [Book Review]

Eowyn Ivy’s The Snow Child is one of those quiet books that resonate within you after you have closed the last chapter. This thoroughly American retelling of the Russian folktale “The Snow Maiden” is at its heart a story about families, grief, and reconnection.  Connection is what makes us human, even connection with a not-quite-feral snow child, a ghost-like orphan raising herself in the cold wilderness who arrives in Winter and leaves in Spring and comes and goes as she pleases. This is historical realistic fiction with a mythic twist, fully rooted in the real world of 1920’s Alaska.

The book opens grippingly with Mabel’s ambivalent suicide attempt, a walk across a frozen Alaskan river. She hopes to break through the ice, a tragic accident, unprovable as suicide. But the ice holds, and she returns home, still carrying her grief and a heart as frozen as the river.

She and her husband Jack left sophisticated Philadelphia to start over after miscarriage, and Alaska proves to be more of a challenge than they expected. When Jack is injured in a farm accident, they are forced to rely on their “closest” neighbors, Esther and George Benson. (“Closest” is a relative term in remote Alaska; the Bensons live quite a distance downriver.) Guarded politeness develops into real friendship. In adversity we are forced into accepting help. A deep bond forms.

Mabel learns friendship and trust again, and through Faina, their “snow child,” she learns to love. First by believing in, and then by accepting and parenting Faina with Jack, what was once a grief-damaged perfunctory marriage blossoms again.  In time, Faina shows herself to the Bensons, and Esther realizes the snow child is real and not the product of grief. The Snow Child evolves into a multi-generational tale.

Like all folktales, The Snow Child conveys a powerful truth: through connection we are healed; through connection we become human.

 

Read an Excerpt.

E.863-1980, Colour lithograph from a set of 50 by Ivan D. Suitin (or Suytin) entitled ‘Narodnuiya Kartinui’ [Russian Folk Pictures], mounted on card and published in Moscow, ca. 1900. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Further Reading

Crescente, Joe. “Kostroma: The Home of Russia’s Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden.” RBTH (Russia Beyond the Headlines) December 11, 2014.

Hibbard, Ruth. “A Shifting Snow Maiden” [blog article]. Victoria and Albert Museum. December 19, 2015. Online.

Lang, Andrew. The Pink Fairy Book. “Snowflake.”  1889. Online.

Ransome, Arthur. Old Peter’s Russian Tales. “The Little Daughter of the Snow.”  1916. Online.

 

 

Band of Bear Brothers [Book Review]

            soldier-bear

             Soldier Bear is the story of the bear Voytek who became both mascot and comrade-in-arms to the men of the Second Polish Corps during World War II. Caught outside their homeland due to the war, 120 Poles joined up with the British and became part of the Allied invasion of Italy and the fight to liberate Europe from the Nazis. “Private” Voytek became a valued member of their company: in addition to improving morale, he once caught a spy in their camp and even helped carry artillery shells. For this latter action, he was immortalized forever as the emblem of the 2nd Polish Corps.

The badge of the 22nd Artillery Support Company of the 2nd Polish Corps from Wikimedia Commons

The badge of the 22nd Artillery Support Company of the 2nd Polish Corps; from Wikimedia Commons

The book begins strongly with an amusing anecdote, told from the bear’s point-of-view, about Voytek wandering into the women’s camp, terrifying the women and upsetting their laundry; then the narrative voice asserts itself: “The bear had at least ten pairs of undies on top of his head. One pair was hanging from his snout and he had a bra around his neck . . .” (9). Middle-Elementary readers will howl with laughter and be instantly hooked.

The company came to adopt a menagerie of animal companions including Dottie the dalmation and a mischievous monkey named Kaska who liked to ride on the back of another dog named Stalin. But Voytek’s adventures are the most interesting, and the other animals are minor characters who sometimes take up too much of the narrative—although juvenile readers, the intended audience, would likely enjoy it.

By Unknown - Imperial War Museum id: HU 16545, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25241510

Voytek meets a dog as a Polish soldier watches.       Photograph: By Unknown – Imperial War Museum id: HU 16545, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25241510

 

            Author Bibi Dumon Tak describes her writing style as “blend[ing] literary technique with fact to produce stories that are both compelling and accurate” — in other words, creative nonfiction. Then in the next sentence, she indicates that Soldier Bear is a novel. Cataloging-in-Publication calls it fiction, and juvenile fiction is where my local library has shelved it. We all would have done better to call it creative nonfiction, slap a nonfiction call number on it [940; World War, 1939-1945] and leave it there.

In structure, the book reads like a traditional biography—bearography—birth, or early life and adoption by the Polish Company; life, including the anecdotes mentioned above and others; and death, or at least farewell, as he goes on to live his post-war life in the Edinburgh Zoo. As fiction, quite frankly, it lacks dramatic tension and a strong plot arc. Its scenes are chronological; there is no big climax; and the post-war denouncement is elongated. Despite its title, this book perhaps works better as a war chronicle of the men in the Second Polish Corps.

One strength is the skill with which the author explained the war to children:

            ‘World War II started when the Germans and the Russians went into Poland, the Germans from the left and the Russians from the right. They stopped exactly in the middle, where they drew a line.

“This half is ours now,” the Germans said.

“And we’ll take the other half,” the Russians said.

Poor Poland! From that day on, the country as everyone knew it no longer existed…’

The author continues

             ‘…Then something unbelievable happened: an entire army of Germans invaded Russia.

“We thought you were our friends!” the Russians shouted at the Germans.

“Ha!” the Germans shouted back, “We’re only friends with ourselves!”…’

Similarly, grisly war details are handled with tact. The war violence gets no more explicit than one soldier reflecting how he almost got blown up, but was instead witness to a death. Spoiler alert: the death of the monkey Kaska and her baby monkey is a stand-in for the emotional toll of war. In all, the author handled the difficult aspects of war with skill and age-appropriateness.

However, American readers are likely to be taken aback by a few additional details in this telling. Note that it was originally published in the Netherlands (2008) where some of the questionable elements may be more acceptable. What is an American reader to make of a bear who prefers beer and cigarettes to honey? Fact is fact, but I expect that some parents might be uncomfortable, especially given its middle-elementary target audience. Then we have a few of the author’s descriptions sometimes veering into what we would call politically incorrect.  One of the characters disdains goodbyes filled with “sobbing away like a bunch of girls” (134) while another greets the death of Hitler with the religious expletive “Holy Mary, Mother of God” (130). To further problematize the text, I suspect this is the creative part of creative nonfiction, or invented dialogue.

I commend the publisher Eerdmans for taking on such a risky book. (In library school, we learned about an illustrated version of Little Red Riding Hood that had been challenged or banned because Red was bringing wine in her basket to Grandma.) Certainly the true story of the war bear Voytek deserves to be told. Reservations aside, this book could fit into an interdisciplinary unit on war or W.W.II . or as the perfect book for the budding history buff. As Americans, we so often view the War through an American or British lens. Soldier Bear is noteworthy because it is one of the few books about the war from the Polish Army’s perspective. In sum, it is an important book.

Middle Elementary/Grade 3 and up; 145 pages with illustrations and photos. Recommended with reservations for larger libraries or specialized readers, parents, and teachers.

Tak, Bibi Dumon, author, and Philip Hopman, illustrator. Soldier Bear. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books For Young Readers, 2011. Print.

By Pernambuko - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9177366

By Pernambuko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9177366

Bonus Material

Actual video footage of Voytek (Wojtek) produced by British website The War Years.

2011 Documentary Film: Wojtek – The Bear That Went To War.

Article with Photos from Business Insider.

Another article from the BBC.

Daily Mail article.

Reading/Study Guide by the Publisher.

 

Follow these Breadcrumbs to a Magical Fairy-tale Novel [Book Review]

breadcrumbs-cover

Sometimes people change. Friends change. Marriages end. People move. Sometimes loved ones with problems, or friends in trouble, don’t want to be saved. These are the heartbreaking truths of adulthood that Anne Ursu beautifully and brilliantly explores in her mid-grade novel Breadcrumbs.

It’s hard for boys and girls to stay best friends as they grow older. Jack is the only person Hazel knows who has a real imagination. Once they played tea parties in the Arctic or Wonderland or outer space and invented superhero baseball (because superheroes need organized sports too), but lately Jack’s started playing capture the flag and football with the boys at fifth grade recess.

“Sometimes your friends change,” Hazel’s mother tries explaining. “Sometimes when you get older you grow apart” (86). The astute reader knows that the mother could as easily be speaking of her own divorce.  As a divorced woman myself, this double theme of loss struck me deeply; I identified with both Hazel and her mother. (I cried.)

Because of the divorce, the change in family finances lands Hazel in public school for the first time. Public school, unlike her previous school, stresses rules over creativity; she has trouble adjusting. She learns that “school [is] very easy … if you just disconnected your heart.” (117).  At the same time, Jack’s mother’s chronic depression turns his heart cold, and in true fairy-tale fashion he goes off with the white witch into an enchanted frozen woods, “and by the time [he] came to her palace, he felt nothing at all” (112). Hazel knows she is the only one who can save him.

erin-mcguire-breadcrumbs-art

Drawing by Erin McGuire

By fairy-tale, I don’t mean sanitized and happily-ever-after. Ursu’s book is breathtakingly beautiful, a moving retelling of “The Snow Queen” and a superb homage to her forbearers with her delightful allusions to “The Red Shoes,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Swan Maiden” and of course “Hansel and Gretel” and others.

Every quest is a journey into self-knowledge, and Hazel comes to realize that just “because someone needed saving” it doesn’t mean that “they were savable” (247). The term codependence never appears in the text: Hazel is a strong heroine, a “brave knight” and not a victim — Jack must and does participate in his own saving. I still applaud Ursu for introducing to readers the truth that I hope every young woman learns before adulthood: one cannot save another.

The themes of friendship and belonging are seamlessly intermingled with questions of identity, adoption, skin color, and parental problems (depression; grief) in a rich, multilayered and fully realized whole.  Brava. Stunning and breathtakingly beautiful.

An exquisite gem. Recommended for all fairy tale girls and women.

 

Ursu, Anne. Breadcrumbs. Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins. 2011. Print.

A Discussion Guide is available on the author’s website.

You Can Do It, Sam [Book Review]

you-can-do-it-sam-1

Sam bear helps Mrs. Bear make and deliver small cakes as gifts to the neighbors. A delightful bedtime or anytime picture book. The illustrations by Anita Jeram really make this a winner. From the bear-shaped snowman on its title page to the bear-shaped hood ornament on the pick-up truck, this is a warm book to snuggle with on a cold winter’s evening. The design on the tw0-page spread of Sam tramping through the snow with his bootprints embedded in the snow, curving from lower left beneath the text to mid-right on the facing page is near-perfect.

you-can-do-it-sam-2

The nose-to-nose affirmation of Sam’s success is equally as charming and well-done.

you-can-do-it-sam-3

Of special note to Children’s Librarians: this is a good choice for a holiday story-time in a diverse community because it doesn’t explicitly mention Christmas; the reader is free to draw his/her own conclusions about why the Bear family is delivering cake gifts. Very well done.

Hest, Amy, author and Anita Jeram, illustrator. You Can Do It, Sam. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2003.

Initially reviewed on GoodReads.

Piper [book review]

piper

Piper the dog runs away from a mean master and finds a loving mistress. A grim and disappointing offering from the author of the lighthearted “No More Kissing” and Blue Kangaroo books. Sad beginning, happy ending. Good word choice conveys tone: “fierce” and “grimly.” Dark illustrations (oil? not sure) do a skilled job of conveying the scenery of the text, especially the “lonely crooked house” with a gray sky background and the (from the dog’s point of view) intimidating cityscape painted (?) in browns and grays. I credit the author with expanding her repertoire and acknowledge that my expectations for a lighter book may have influenced my reading. Probably too dark to use in preschool story-time, but perhaps it might fit into a lower elementary unit on not-fitting-in, animal cruelty, or perseverance. The best part is when Piper “took care of” the rabbits by playing with them instead of hunting them because the master poorly explained the command. Then the rabbits brought him food. I would have liked to see more of the rabbits.

Chichester Clark, Emma. Piper. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books For Young Readers, 1995. Print.

Reviewed on GoodReads

 

 

 

Execution, Forensics, Faith, and Saints: Getting to Know the Grand Duchess Maria

         romonov-new-yorker

          My fascination with the Romanovs began in 1995, although it lay dormant for twenty years. In 1995 The New Yorker magazine published a piece on the forensic and DNA identification of the nine bodies found in a forest in the Urals near the Russian city of Ekaterinburg close to the boundary between Europe and Asia. In his article “The Last Romanov Mystery” author Robert K. Massie compellingly told the story of Tsar Nicholas and his family’s last night, their brutal execution, hasty burial, removal and reburial, and eventual exhumation and identification 73+ years later. The horrific and gripping details—bullets bouncing off the Grand Duchesses because they had sewn jewels into their corsets—made a lasting impression, as did the account of one of the daughters waking up from unconsciousness and crying out in pain amid the corpses of her family being loaded onto a truck. Compelling and grisly.  What impressed me the most was the author’s explanation of the scientific evidence in a detailed yet accessible manner which was comprehensible to laypersons like myself. I renewed my New Yorker subscription for several years based on the strength of this piece alone.

It was the history and science which interested me; I’ve never gone gaga over royalty. I’d had zero desire to see the 1997 animated film Anastasia which I knew would be romanticized drivel. Fast forward ~16 years.  At the time of my conversion to the Orthodox Church—a non-Russian jurisdiction I might add—my priest informed me that Tsar Nicholas and his family were saints, and I respectfully concealed my skepticism. It was only this past July, upon reading about the Feast Days for the Romanovs, that I began to understand why they were considered saints, and then I became completely captivated with the Grand Duchess Maria.

maria-romanov-1914-wikimedia

Grand Duchess Maria 1914.                           Photo from Wikimedia.

In Russia, the royal family is considered Passion-Bearers, those who face death in a Christ-like manner, although some recognize them also as martyrs. Whatever his flaws personal and political, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated for the good of his country; he choose to stay in Russia to share the suffering of his people. Later, when he tried to emigrate, it was too late. Fate slowly tightened around him and his family. (An example of an English passion-bearer is King Edward the Martyr.)

romanov-icon-2-wikimedia

          One religious website describes the Grand Duchess Maria as having “the rare quality of being perfectly happy in any surroundings, even when the family was imprisoned in Tobolsk.” Because of this good nature, “she was chosen by her parents to accompany them when they were forced to separate from the family and embark upon their last fateful journey to Ekaterinburg” (Sheniloff). I took a special interest in Maria—I have a history of depression amidst life trials less challenging than the horrors of political imprisonment—and I set out to learn to the truth about the Grand Duchess. Was her good temperament actual, or a religious gloss? I had to know.  Thus began my quest into the Romanovs.

romonov-last-days

          Helen Rappaport’s The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg was as compelling as the original The New Yorker article. She devotes a chapter to each of the key players—the four daughters are combined in one chapter—and the reader learns about Tsaritsa (Empress) Alexandra’s genealogy as Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and her marriage to the Tsar; some reasons for Tsar Nicholas’ ineffective reign; the tremendous courage of the Doctor and other household servants who  accompanied the royal family; and why the family was executed at that point in time: the Czech army and the pro-monarchy White Russian army was advancing on Ekaterinburg and closing in three miles away. Rappaport confirms that third-daughter Maria “seemed easily contented with very little, having no complaints about the family’s quiet life [under arrest] in Tobolsk.”  The author also verifies that Maria was “patient” and “stoic,” a natural caregiver for her oft-indisposed mother and her hemophiliac brother Alexey, the heir.  She alone initially accompanied the Tsar and Tsaritsa as they were moved from Tobolsk to what would become their final prison and execution site, the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg (81).  [Tsarevich Alexey was ill and couldn’t travel, and the rest of the family joined them later.]  Rappaport also addresses in brief their 2000 canonization and the founding of the Church on the Blood at the execution site; her book is copywritten 2008, before the identification of the bodies of Alexey and Maria, who were buried separately from the main mass grave.

Of particular interest to religious readers will be Rappaport’s description of the family’s final liturgy, a service called the obednitsa, a shorter liturgy-without-communion typically offered to soldiers in the field. When the serving deacon came to the part of the service commemorating the dead—“ ‘With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of your servant where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor suffering but life everlasting’ ”— he was compelled to chant rather than speak it, and the entire family “had all silently fallen to their knees” (162). They recognized their likely approaching death, and turned to God in their last days as they had throughout their entire lives.

romonov-church_built_on_site_where_last_tzars_family_was_killed_wikimedia

The Church on the Blood (Ekaterinburg, Russia), the church built on the Romanovs’ execution site. Note the photos of the imperial family posted on the church.                              Photo from Wikimedia

I remember being a little girl of 4 or 5 when my father compared me to Sesame Street’s Oscar-the-Grouch. It seems I’ve always been grumpy. Lately I’ve been thinking about Grand Duchess Maria. If she can be cheerful throughout house arrest, surely I can learn to stop complaining. An Atlantic article suggests that kindness is a muscle we can strengthen. Grand Duchess Maria is someone I aspire to emulate: I have recently taken Maria Nikolaevna Romanova as my patron saint.

To think it all started with a The New Yorker article.

 

Interesting Tidbits

  • New Yorker author Robert Massie  won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his book Peter the Great: His Life and World.
  • Helen Rappaport  has also written a 2014 book about the Romanovs, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra.

For Additional Reading

Maria Romanov: Grand Duchess Maria Niklaevna of Russia

References

Massie, Robert K. “The Last Romanov Mystery.” The New Yorker. Vol. No. August 21 & 28, 1995, p. 72 – 95.

Rappaport, Helen. The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press,  2008.

Sheniloff, Matushka Natalia. “Russia’s Crown Jewels: The Child-Martyrs.” Orthodox America [Newspaper]. Vol. XVI, No.6 (146), February1997, pp. 8 & 10. Posted online at http://www.serfes.org/royal/child-martyrs.htm