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It’s Historical! (Fiction, that is)
Today, two historical fiction books I’d love to talk to about, both set during World War II (making this an apt post to publish on the first night of Hannukah).
One is a lovely novel in verse that I don’t think has gotten much attention — zero stars, no buzz — but I was deeply touched by it and want to shine a little reflected glory on it by sticking it in the conversation even if it’s so dark of a horse it’s nearly invisible.
The second is a critical darling and I just don’t seem to have read the book everyone is raving about, so I’m eager to hear what others see in this one.
So join me below the fold for Paper Hearts and The Emperor of Any Place.
I’ll start with the easy one.
Paper Hearts is historical fiction that’s quite heavy on the history. In the midst of the Holocaust, in Auschwitz, a young woman pulled together with numerous other inmates to create, of all things, a birthday card. Honestly, if it weren’t straight up fact I’d probably be pointing out that this is an insane premise. But it happened; apparently the heart-shaped card can be seen at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.
The history is very well researched, and the backmatter is extensive; the novel itself is in verse, and it’s not Nelson level or anything, but it far surpasses the “prose with line breaks” (David Levithan gets credit for that description, and wrote one of my favorite examples) that so often is considered verse. Wiviott does a lot with repetition and rhythm; the poem about the train ride rumbles like the train tracks.
This is a story about really big things: humanity in the face of terror, bravery, friendship. But it’s been rendered in myriad tiny details so that the huge ideas are made finite and personal — and so poignant. It’s a tear jerker and a quick read and ok, yes, it’s true that as a post-Holocaust Jew I am easily moved by Holocaust novels, but this one is never cheap and never takes the easy way out: it’s restrained and measured and all the more powerful for the quiet way it tells the story of Fania and Zlatka and the way that friendship can save us, because in the end it’s not just the body that needs to survive.
I really wanted a Morris nod but no luck; please read it anyway.
And now for the toughie:
I really wanted to love this one. I have admired Wynne-Jones’ writing in the past (A Thief in the House of Memory still stands out), and the premise fascinated me. And then the stars started rolling in and I was thrilled that this was next on my pile.
And then I read it. And… I just don’t get it.
Taken in parts, there’s a heck of a lot to recommend: there are two intertwined stories here, and both have some great moments. All together, though, I felt like they choked each other.
So rather than enumerating the things that didn’t work for me, I’m just going to ask for arguments to the contrary, because I suspect this time it was me and not the book and I don’t want the official Someday verdict to be negative.
(Also, and this might be important: I started this over a weekend; I had an ARC but had left it at school so I bought a digital copy [I was that excited!]. This is an awful book to read on e. Like The Truth Commission, it has footnotes, and they resolve in really clunky and disruptive ways in the digital text. I actually disliked it enough that I stopped reading for most of a week before starting over [from page 1] with the ARC, which made this a much better book — although it turns out I still found the footnotes clunky and disruptive.)
So let me have all your reasons this is solid gold, because the reviews are fantastic and I am clearly the outlier.
Filed under: Books to look for
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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