Saturday, March 19, 2016

Teen review: Fantasy/Horror

Cuckoo Song
by Frances Hardinge
408 Pages
Recommended for grades 8-10

Reviewed by Kira Toal

“It’s as if they’re wearing a lie, but it doesn’t fit them. They haven’t buttoned it the right way, so it’s baggy in some places and coming away in others.” 
Thirteen-year-old Triss is not well. She knows this from the moment she awakens in an unfamiliar room, surrounded by adults she cannot place, and unable to recall who she is or how she got there. Though Triss slowly regains fragments of her memory, a mass of unanswered questions remain in her head, such as: Why does her sister hate her? How did she, in her severe medical condition, survive a fall into the Grimmer (a body of water near her family vacation home)? Why does she wake up covered in leaves and dirt? Why is she constantly ravenous, and why do the dolls speak to her?

This novel is so full of twists and mystery that it’s a bit difficult to write a review without giving anything away, but I can tell you that Cuckoo Song instantly became a favorite of mine. What’s not to love? There’s a gritty and compelling plot, driven by fascinating characters and the author’s absolutely gorgeous style of writing. The story is full of suspense and drama, but it isn’t quite as dark as the cover may suggest. In fact, the only criticism I have of the book is that it could have been a bit more frightening, so don’t be discouraged by the cover.

What made the book such a fun read for me were the characters. I loved the interactions between all of them, especially the hilarious (and accurate) love-hate relationship between Triss and her younger sister, Pen. The characters, human or otherwise, were both easy to love and easy to hate. Either way, the characters brought the book to life and drove the fascinating plot through the truly magical writing style of Frances Hardinge.

I easily give this book 5 stars! It was impossible to put down, and I guarantee that you will enjoy it yourself!

Editor's note: Although I have not read this book, I would definitely try it out, after having read Hardinge's Fly by Night, which was weird and wonderful! It reminded me of several books--the Inkheart books of Cornelia Funke because there's a lot of book mythology in it, the Septimus Heap books by Angie Sage, because of the quirkiness of the characters and settings, and a tiny bit of the Lemony Snicket books (although I rather disliked those) because of the odd relationships between children and adults. And the language, oh the language is delicious!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Guest Blogger: Historical Fiction

A Night Divided
by Jennifer A. Nielsen
317 pages

Historical Fiction, stand-alone
Recommended for ages 10 and up

Reviewed by Elizabeth B., reference librarian

A Night Divided tells the story of a 12-year-old girl named Gerta who lives in East Berlin under the Soviets with her mother, father, and brothers Fritz and Dominique. Life has been all right for Gerta and her family, but they are starting to notice little signs that indicate life may change drastically for the worse if they do not leave. Gerta’s father and her brother Dominique leave for the West to see if there are better job opportunities and housing available than in the East. The night after they leave, the Berlin Wall--which divides the city into two sections--goes up. It separates Gerta, Fritz and her mother from Dominique and her father, with no hope of being reunited.

Life soon becomes horrible on the eastern side of the Wall. Those living there can never leave, not even for a day to see family members on the western side. There is no freedom of expression or speech and its residents are constantly under the surveillance of the Stasi (secret police). If they say anything against the Stasi or the government, they are labeled as traitors and suffer severe consequences. The Berlin Wall itself is covered in barbed wire and constantly monitored by the Stasi. Those who try to escape are killed or imprisoned. Even the families of those who try to leave suffer. Gerta and her remaining family survive as best they can, but it is difficult without Dominique and her father. Then, one day Gerta unexpectedly sees her father on one of the viewing platforms on the western side of the wall pantomiming a song and dance he taught her in her childhood--a song about digging and raking. Gerta takes it as a message to build a tunnel under the wall to escape to the West, but digging a tunnel will be difficult and dangerous. Soon Gerta must ask if is it more dangerous for her family to stay in East Germany or more deadly to try to leave?

I found A Night Divided to be a riveting and fast-moving story. Even though I had some background knowledge about the Berlin Wall and thought I knew how the story was going to end, I still had a hard time putting the book down. I think this was because the story was so well written and because of the multiple unexpected yet realistic plot twists that kept me on my toes. I was impressed by the amount of detail in the story, which made me feel like I was really seeing East Germany during that time period. Everything from the descriptions of the setting and the time period to the German terminology used by the characters in the story makes the book come alive. Another interesting tidbit I enjoyed was that the author included quotes from different German authors and philosophers, and even from some famous American figures. at the beginning of each chapter. These quotes fit in extremely well with the story since many of them relate to the pursuit of justice and freedom, a core theme in the book.

I did feel this book would have benefitted from some additional background information about the historical events on which it is based. For example, I would have appreciated an afterword or note from the author detailing what historical events lead to the division of Germany and why the wall was built. I feel this would have benefitted younger readers who have no background knowledge about the Berlin Wall, so that they would realize that the book is based on actual events in history. At the beginning of the book there are some photos of the Berlin Wall, the “death strip” and a map of Berlin divided up into its four sections, but that is it.

Readers who liked The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, might enjoy this book.

My rating: 4

Editor's note: Burbank Public Library does not yet own this book, but we're working
on it!