Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Frankenstein and Mary Shelley in Young Adult Books

2018 is the bicentennial of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I love Frankenstein. It's one of my very favorite classics, and there was no way I could let the bicentennial slip by without a big to-do.

If you haven't read Frankenstein, read it now. Halloween time during the bicentennial is the perfect opportunity. And, after you read it (or if you already have) continue the celebration with a book inspired by Frankenstein or Mary Shelley's life.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White:
Kiersten White's brand new novel, puts one of the female side characters of Mary Shelley's book in the driver's seat. When I read Frankenstein I felt like Elizabeth had so much more potential, and I love what Ms. White did with her story in this novel. Perhaps the darkest of the bunch (and that's saying something), this book is completely creepy and really well done. 

Mary's Monster by Lita Judge
This book is a beautifully illustrated verse novel about the life of Mary Shelley. I really enjoyed reading it. Every single page features a gorgeous illustration that helps tell Mary's story. It is so pretty. Lita Judge's novel is a compelling way to learn about the life of Mary Shelley.

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel:
Kenneth Oppel's book is a prequel to the events of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and it features a teenage Victor who, along with his cousin Elizabeth and best friend Henry, is on the search for the Elixir of Life. The stakes are high because Victor's twin, Konrad, is languishing with a mysterious illness. I really enjoyed the setting in Oppel's retelling. The Frankenstein home is pretty cool, and the Swizz Alps setting is a plus.

This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee:
This book is a steampunk retelling of Frankenstein. Alasdair Finch is a Shadow Boy, someone who makes and maintains illegal clockwork prosthesis. But Alasdair has gone much further. With clockwork and lightning he has resurrected his brother. I loved this retelling. One of my very favorite things about it is that Mary Shelley is a character in the story. The deeper themes of prejudice, what it means to be human, and fear of science are both nicely updated and true to the original story.

The Monsters We Deserve by Marcus Sedgwick
This novella was written as a tribute to the bicentennial of Frankenstein. It's the story of an unnamed author, who 200 years after the birth of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, goes on a writing retreat in the Swiss Alps. There he begins ruminating on Frankenstein and the things he admires and dislikes about the novel. And then things get weirder, and the reader wonders if the events are all in this man's mind. I really enjoyed this strange little story. I was so captivated by it that I read it in one sitting.

Strange Star by Emma Carroll:
Emma Carroll begins her story at the Villa Diodati where Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley are visiting Lord Byron who famously challenges them to each write a ghost story. Here Carroll diverges from history when a young girl knocks at the door looking for her younger sister. Her story just might be where Mary found her inspiration. I really liked how Ms. Carroll brings the real history into her story. This one is good for a slightly younger audience too, if you are looking for a book for the 10+ crew.

A Cold Legacy by Megan Shepherd:
This book is the final addition to The Madman's Daughter trilogy. In the first two books, Shepherd drew upon the stories of The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I was curious to see how she would bring Frankenstein into the mix, seeing as it was published roughly 70 years early. The answer? Very well. In A Cold Legacy, Juliet learns that her guardian is the heir to Dr. Frankenstein, and her manor is the repository of all his research (and it works).

Clay by David Almond
David Almond has a dreamlike quality to his writing that is well-suited to a Frankenstein story. Davie is drawn to the new kid in town, Stephen, who is kind of creepy. Stephen creates figures out of clay, and he brings one of them to life, and it is monstrous. A truly creepy horror story that also inspires readers to contemplate philosophical questions, much like Mary Shelley's original.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss:
This novel is so much fun. Theodora Goss very expertly weaves together inspiration from several novels, including Frankenstein. Her characters include Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Catherin Moreau, Beatrice Rappaccini, Justine Frankenstein, and Sherlock Holmes. The girls must band together to solve a mystery centered around the scientific organization to which their fathers belonged. I also love how this book is told, with little interjections from all the characters. 

Hideous Love by Stephanie Hemphill
This book is another verse novel about Mary Shelley's life (without illustrations). It was written several years prior to Lita Judge's new book. Although the formats are quite similar, Hemphill is a bit more thorough in her reconstruction of Mary Shelley's life. It was actually very interesting to read two verse novels about Mary Shelley's life back to back. I felt like the two authors had a bit of a different take especially when it came to Percy Shelley.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Series Salute: The Conqueror's Saga by Kiersten White

This series has been a wild, intense ride full of so many ups and downs and raw emotions.
A true tour de force

About the Books

With this series, Kiersten White recasts Vlad the Impaler as a girl, Lada Dragwlya. Vlad III, known for his ruthlessness, is most famous for being the historical inspiration for Dracula. Lada, in turn, is ruthless, smart, and fierce. She has a viciousness that is rather terrifying. You don't read about too many girls like her. The series closely follows the historical events of Vlad's life. Lada and her brother are ransomed by their father to the Ottomans. There they come of age, and befriend the future Sultan, Mehmed. Lada nurses an intense desire to take back the throne. Radu, on the other hand, embraces life with the Ottomans. And Mehmed will let nothing get in the way of his crown and his desire to conquer Constantinople.

Why I Love Them

1. The Historical Setting:
I love the setting and time period. It's not a common one for historical fiction, and it is so fascinating, dynamic, and brutal.

2. Politics:
From scheming to get Mehmed on the throne, to plotting the siege of Constantinople, to retaking the Wallachian throne and the ensuing conflict between Mehmed and Lada there's so much at stake.

3. A High-Stakes Love Triangle:
Love triangles get a bad rap these days, but a well-done love triangle is pretty grand. The love triangle between Lada, Mehmed, and Radu is intense. The stakes are so high. You just know something has to give. 

4. Complicated Characters:
Every one of our three main characters is so complicated. There are betrayals upon betrayals in this series, and all of the main characters do such terrible things. Finally, Ms. White handles subtleties and complications so well. The desire for power, the role of religion, the cost of love are all deftly crafted.

5. Lada and her Janissaries:
Lada is tough, strong, single-minded, and incredibly intense. She marches to Wallachia with a group of Wallachian Janissaries (compatriots who were taken from their home and trained as elite soldiers by the Ottomans). I loved the camaraderie between Lada and her men.

6. Radu's Family: 
Radu is my favorite character in this series. He is definitely the most compassionate of the three main characters (not that he has much competition). I also really love Radu's family. Nazira is the best. And Fatima. And also Cyprian.

7. Mehmed:
We couldn't have the series without Mehmed, and I really enjoyed his character and his antics in book one, but, honestly, he is kind of the worst.

8. The Siege of Constantinople:
Radu and Nazira's time in Constantinople was among the most emotional depictions of war and conquest that I've ever read. Because Radu is able to see the humanity and goodness in these supposed enemies, he is torn and broken and so is the reader who is privy to the tragedy of it all.
9. Exploration of Social Issues:
Honestly, this is where this series goes from good to excellent. Kiersten White explores issues of gender equality, sexuality, religion, and familial relationships in such a sophisticated and unflinching manner. 

10. The Audiobook Narrator:
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Fiona Hardingham's inspired performance of these books. Her narration added so much raw emotion to the story. It's truly stellar.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Reading on a Theme: Inspired by the Classics

I do love a good retelling. Today we have five retellings inspired by classic literature. These books are fun for fans and newbies alike, and they would be perfect for the upcoming holidays (Halloween or Christmas). The creep factor is pretty high here.

Romeo and Juliet:
Bright Smoke, Cold Fire beings near the end of Romeo and Juliet. In this version of the story Paris and Rosaline are the leads. In the face of the zombie apocalypse, one city, Viyaro, still stands thanks to blood sacrifice. The city is filled with many different clans all existing in an uneasy truce. When Romeo falls in love with The Juliet--the girl endowed with magic from birth to be the vengeance of her people--those uneasy boundaries come crashing down. I liked the eerie atmosphere in Rosamund Hodge's book. I kept picturing a dark, pseudo-Italian Renaissance setting. One word of caution, this book is definitely a slow burn. Be prepared to really let it simmer. Review copy from Edelweiss.

A Tale of Two Cities:
Tell the Wind and Fire is a retelling of A Tale of Two Cities set in an unpleasant future. In Lucie Manette's world all of humanity is divided into the Light and the Dark. Lucie escaped the Dark with her broken father and became a symbol for the both the Light and the Dark. I loved the atmospheric and gritty setting. Lucie is being used by all parties against her will, and the stakes are very high. I also really liked how Sarah Rees Brennan used doppelgangers to explain why Ethan had an exact lookalike (always a suspend-your-disbelief aspect of A Tale of Two Cities). It's nice that this futuristic, dystopian tale is not a series. It felt so good to have the whole story. Review copy from NetGalley.

Orpheus and Eurydice:
Claire and Ella Grey are inseparable best friends (and maybe something more). Then on a trip to the beach they meet the mysterious Orpheus who can charm the birds and beasts with his music. Orpheus has eyes for no one but Ella, and she is instantly smitten as well. But their love story is a tragic one, and Claire is the only one left to tell it. A Song for Ella Grey reads like a fairy tale or maybe a dream. It's as if the reader is seeing it all through a haze. I'm not sure quite what to make of David Almond's story. It seemed to straddle two worlds at all points--both modern and mythic--and I think I would have liked to see a more modern take on this ancient tale. Review copy from NetGalley. 

A Christmas Carol:
Holly Chase is dead. After failing as a Scrooge, she's now a ghost and condemned to work for Project Scrooge as their Ghost of Christmas Past. It's a monotonous life. But this year's Scrooge is different. He's young and his story is so similar to Holly's. Delving into Ethan's past is starting to defrost Holly's icy heart. Cynthia Hand's take on A Christmas Carol is clever, funny, and tender all at once. Holly is a pretty entertaining narrator. I enjoyed all of her snark, rolled my eyes at how sorry she felt for herself, and got a little teary at times. I also really liked the characters she worked with at Project Scrooge. If you enjoy lighthearted YA retellings, maybe put this one on your list for next Christmas. Review copy from Edelweiss.

Imogen Rockford is not at all prepared to be the next Duchess of Wickersham, nor is she at ease in the grand estate that was the site of her parents' death, but she is determined to do her duty. Back at Rockford, Imogen reconnects with her childhood crush and starts to become very suspicious about her cousin's untimely death. Suspicion is like a mash-up of The Princess Diaries and Rebecca. It has all the charm of the suddenly-a-princess plot laced with murder, paranoia, and the paranormal. Rebecca is one of my favorite classics, and I really enjoyed seeing how Alexandra Monir drew from that creepy tale. This book would be a really fun Halloween pick. Review copy from NetGalley.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Guest Post: Caroline Leech, author of IN ANOTHER TIME + A Giveaway

In Another Time by Caroline Leech

Publisher / Year: HarperTeen - August 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

I'm so excited to welcome back author Caroline Leech today. Caroline is the author of Wait for Me and In Another Time. Both novels are set in Scotland during World War II. Wait for Me was one of my favorite debuts last year, and I was so happy to be back in Caroline's capable hands for another wartime story set in Scotland. In Another Time is about Maisie McCall who joins the war effort as a lumberjill with the Women's Timber Corps. Stationed in the wilds of Scotland, Maisie's company works alongside the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit, and Maisie grows especially close to one member of NOFU, John Lindsay. Today for World War II Wednesday Caroline shares some of the adventures she had researching her newest book.

How to Write About a Nice Cup of Tea


One of the biggest challenges to face any author of historical fiction is how to create a very personal and emotional connection between the reader and someone who lived in another place and in another time . . . Hmmm, in another time, that sounds familiar…

My second novel, IN ANOTHER TIME, takes readers back again to Scotland during World War Two. As with WAIT FOR ME, my debut novel of last year, I wanted to tell a story about how much wartime changed lives, even for those people who stayed far away from the battlefront. And there weren’t many places further from the heat of battle, both geographically and spiritually, than the ancient forests of the Scottish Highlands. That’s where we first find 17-year-old Maisie McCall, as she puts down her 6lb axe and studies the bleeding blisters on her hands. Instead of going back to school after the summer, Maisie has left home to become a lumberjill.

Until an author friend sent me a link to a newspaper article with a note which simply said, “Did you know women chopped down trees during the war?” I knew absolutely nothing about the lumberjills. But as soon as she said that word, I was hooked, and I started delving into history. The Research Phase of the book began.

In 1942, the British government announced the formation of the Women’s Timber Corps (WTC). Because German submarines were consistently targeting shipping convoys bringing vital supplies, such as timber, into Britain, the country needed to turn to its own home-grown resources instead. However, because so many of the foresters—traditionally a male occupation—had joined up to fight, the Home Secretary instead put a call out to women to take their places. As a result, more than 5,000 women joined the Women’s Timber Corps in Scotland, many of them coming from city jobs as secretaries and shop girls—or in Maisie’s case, straight from school—to take on heavy physical work in the woods with axes, saws and chains. They also worked with huge carthorses and in sawmills, drove logging trucks and loaded trains. The lumberjills were given just six weeks’ training before being posted to a WTC camp somewhere in Scotland. These camps were often remote and rudimentary, and the girls often had to endure dreadful weather conditions because the Scottish winter (and even the summer too!) can be brutal. Many of them worked in the woods for four years, through the end of the war, until the disbandment of the Corps in 1946.

Many of the lumberjills’ memories have been collected and shared online and in wonderful books such as Affleck Gray’s Timber! and Mairi Stewart’s Voices of the Forest, and as I read them, one theme really stood out, and that was friendship.  These women got only one week’s leave each year, and so their fellow lumberjills really became their family. Many of the friendships made in the camps lasted all their lives, and that’s a long time—if 17-year-old Maisie had been alive today, she would have been 93 years old.

I was very lucky last summer to get to meet and talk to a former lumberjill about such friendships. At 19, Christina Edgar joined the WTC, bored with being an office clerk and looking to do her bit for the war effort.  She was posted to a camp near Dundee until the end of the war when she returned home to Glasgow where she married, strange but true, Jim Forrester. Mrs. Forrester, who has just celebrated her 95th birthday, came to meet me at the Lumberjills Memorial Statue near Aberfoyle, which was finally erected in 2007 after a long campaign for the WTC to be officially recognized for its war service. As we sat at the bronze lumberjill’s feet, looking out over the gloriously wooded hills of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, she told me stories about her WTC friends. She also remembered the other foresters they worked with, some German and Italian prisoners from nearby POW camps, and also the men of the Canadian Forestry Corps and the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit (NOFU).

Of course, I already knew about the NOFU lumberjacks from all my digging around (what did authors ever do without the internet and a top-notch library service?). In fact, the moment I first discovered that 3,500 Newfoundland lumberjacks had volunteered to work in Scotland, my own plot development suddenly took off. I write love stories after all! But in introducing the handsome, if enigmatic, John Lindsay into Maisie’s story, I wasn’t straying too far from reality. Many of the lumberjills became romantically involved with the lumberjacks they worked with, and quite a few ended up marrying them after the war and returning to Newfoundland and Canada afterwards as war brides. 

But in IN ANOTHER TIME, Maisie quickly realizes that John Lindsay is not what she would ever have expected a lumberjack to be. For one thing, he writes poetry, but also, no matter how close she gets to him, she’s sure that there’s even more that he’s hiding from her. So, while Maisie tries to find the real John—and how the war has torn his life apart—she ends up discovering more about herself than she could ever have imagined.

But back to that challenge I mentioned up above. Once my Research Phase was well underway (and to be honest, research never really comes to an end—even after the book is published, I’m still finding out interesting things about the lumberjills!) I faced the problem of how to create a story which would connect the reader, personally and emotionally, to a character living in another place and in another time in history. I certainly needed to do that without sounding like a school textbook reciting dates and places of important battles, and names of important men who had signed important documents. To my mind, fiction is there to tell the story behind the textbooks and the newspaper headlines. Historical novels tell the story of fictional people who live their lives within factual events, and even though they are imaginary, if the period has been researched and written well, their stories will shed a bright light on the truth of history, even if the stories themselves aren’t actually true. 

One of the ways I try to create this connection between a character and a reader is to write about the fine details of their life, the small things that are familiar to any reader, like the yearning for a long hot bath with lovely scented soap after a long day of hard work. But then I counteract that with the thing that makes my character’s life so different, like the fact that in wartime, both soap and water were rationed. Maisie was entitled to just five inches of hot bathwater each week, and the only soap she’d have been able to buy using her ration book was carbolic—harsh, pink and sold in utilitarian blocks. Or, in my first book, WAIT FOR ME, perhaps the reader finds their mouth watering at Lorna’s plan to have a piece of cake and a nice cup of tea, except that 1945, the cake would have been made using powdered eggs, not fresh, and with almost no sugar (should that even have been called ‘cake’, I wonder?) because of food rationing. To make matters worse, the tea leaves she would have used were almost certainly on their fourth, fifth or even sixth use because rationing had also been introduced for tea, as well as meat, cheese, fruit and eventually even for bread.

Personal relationships too must be written in a way that is familiar to the reader, while also being so different. In wartime, all relationships were put under immense strain, which is undoubtedly why so many historical authors set their stories during or in the immediate aftermath of wars or conflicts. In WAIT FOR ME, Lorna misses her older brothers like so many little sisters who’ve been left behind, but Lorna’s brothers have not simply left home to go to college or to get a job. They’ve both gone into the Army—one to fight in an infantry battalion and one to work in the War Office in central London, a city still under threat from German bombing—and there is no guarantee that either of them will come home again. And in IN ANOTHER TIME, Maisie runs away from home, not because she’s had a fight with her parents over her curfew or an unsuitable boyfriend, but because she’s determined to do her bit for the war effort, even though she’s only 17.

So, perhaps next time you read a historical novel, see if you can spot these tricks-of-the-author’s-trade. See if you can spot where they use historically accurate detail, not to lecture you, but to enhance your understanding of a character’s life or the description of a scene. And look out for when they turn your connection to the familiar on its head, by making that mouth-watering cup of tea and cake not quite as delicious as you’d been expecting.

Talking of cake, I’m fairly sure there’s a slice of some fresh-egg, full-sugar sponge cake in my pantry, alongside a whole tin of tea-bags. And since I’m not living in Maisie’s 1942 or in Lorna’s 1945, I’m going to go put the kettle on.


Win a signed copy of IN ANOTHER TIME and a beautifully illustrated map of Scotland. Thanks to the author for providing the winnings. (International locations may enter.)

Caroline Leech is a Scottish author who came to Texas in 2007 for an adventure. She still hasn’t left. Her debut young adult novel, Wait for Me, was published in January 2017 by Harper Teen, and her second book, In Another Time, was published in August 2018. Before coming to Texas, she worked in public relations for arts organizations in the UK and was the editor of the glossy coffee-table book, Welsh National Opera – the First Sixty Years. Caroline lives in Houston with her husband and their (almost) grown up children.

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