Front Lines by Michael Grant

front lines

It’s always challenging to find young adult books without your stereotypical story. Each time I think I have found something new, up pops that same High School drama. Because I am so familiar with these types of books, when I do find something new (or even slightly new) , I become completely engrossed within the pages. I found this book to be a little more original, and became excited reading it.

Michael Grant writes about an alternate history where women could enlist during World War II. I immediately found this intriguing. The narrator follows the stories of three young women, whom are still young and somewhat naive, through the war. Let’s start with Rio.

Rio is seventeen and tall for her age. She lives in a small town called Gedwell Falls. She has strong shoulders from being the daughter of a farmer. She’s one of those girls who gets good grades, is shy, and doesn’t talk back. Her sister was killed by the “Japs”, which causes Rio to enlist. She wants revenge. This is a bold move for her because of her shy, quiet demeanor. Next up is Frangie.

Frangie is a black girl who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma . She’s a small for her 17 years. Her father had an accident and is unable to work. She enlists to save her family from absolute poverty. When she enlists she plans to become a medic. Now for Rainy.

Rainy enlists because she wants to serve her country. She wants to prove herself. Her family is Jewish, and because of this, one can guess her feeling towards the Germans. She plans to work in army intelligence.

But their enlistment processes/reasons aren’t the whole story. This book deals with the horrors of war and hard-to-answer questions, like: What is it like to see your friend die in front of your very eyes? What is it like to deal with the harsh sexism and racism of the 1940s?

Over all, this book had an dynamic plot and was conceptually intriguing. I found it especially wonderful that even though Michael Grant is a man, he did a very good job portraying his female characters. This is a must read book for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

-Sierra B

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The Fall of Butterflies by Andrea Portes

fall of butterfliesIn her novel, The Fall of Butterflies, tells the story of Wilma, a young woman whose life hasn’t by any stretch of the imagination been easy.  She’s never quite fit in, her mother has been absent, and her father struggles to support them.  To make matters worse, her mother has decided that to be a proper adult, she has to abandon her hometown of What Cheer, Iowa for a pretentious private school on the East Coast.  Consequently, Wilma plans to commit suicide once she arrives there.

That is, until she meets Remy.

Remy is an enigma.  She fascinates Wilma and breathes joy back into her life with her wit and friendship.  For a while, they simply enjoy each other’s company.  Remy sometimes disappears for days on end, but she also moves in with Wilma and pushes her to try new things and meet new people.  However, Wilma soon learns that Remy has some very serious problems and some very dark secrets.

Portes tells Wilma’s story in a refreshingly frank tone by wasting no time beating around the bush and using very little figurative language.  This technique works well, and makes Wilma seem more genuine.  In addition to being painfully honest at times, The Fall of Butterflies is gripping to say the least, and Portes manages to make a story that addresses very real human concerns fun and light at times, while also solemn at others.  Portes also raises questions about social issues such as the wealth gap and subsequent prejudices as Wilma watches the lives of her wealthy friends through the eyes of a child whose father worked very hard just to keep them afloat.  The Fall of Butterflies also succeeds at character foils, both with Grease and Hamlet; although, it would have been better if Portes had not spent so much time explaining how the characters related and spent more time showing it.

This challenge is actually the key flaw in The Fall of Butterflies: Portes wastes too much time telling her reader when she should be showing them.  She does paint a very vivid picture, but she leaves very little to the imagination.  Most people are familiar enough with Hamlet to recognize that Remy shares many traits with Ophelia, and it would have been more elegant if she’d allowed the readers to make the connection for themselves.  This problem persists throughout the entire book and follows nearly every pop culture reference made, which makes it tedious to read at times.  Portes’s lack of a fourth wall also feels unnecessary and uncomfortable.  All of the points Wilma made by speaking directly to the reader could have been made more gracefully if Portes had shown them implicitly through Wilma’s thoughts or actions.  The final challenge The Fall of Butterflies faces is how to seem realistic.  It’s very difficult for adults to genuinely sound like teenagers in young adult fiction, and Portes never really manages to bring Wilma the authentistic voice of a high schooler.  She attempts to remedy this through use of pop culture references, such as “hashtags”,  and long tangents about unnecessary things, but they only feel out of place and often break the flow of the story, making them more annoying than relatable.  Even elements of the plot, such as Milo’s sudden interest in Wilma and the breakneck speed at which their relationship moves, are incredible.  Frankly, it would have been much more believable for Remy and Wilma to fall in love than for Wilma to fall hopelessly in love with Milo because she saw him across the way once.  Although the “love at first sight” trope has been successful in the past, many authors struggle to make it believable, and Portes never really achieves it.
In short, The Fall of Butterflies is witty and brutally honest, but was difficult to get through due to the aforementioned problems.  Regardless, it is an interesting read for people who would like to explore  themes such as acceptance of oneself and others, the class distinction and the issues that it causes, and what it means to live rather than to simply persist. – Paige P.

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The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

steep and thorny way 2The Steep and Thorny Way chronicles the life of sixteen year old Hanalee Denney, whose parents are an interracial couple in 1920’s Oregon.  Hanalee is still mourning the loss of her father nearly two years before, and the story begins with Hanalee confronting the boy who hit her father while driving under the influence.  He suggests that her father was killed by Hanalee’s new stepfather, Uncle Clyde, which leads her down a twisted path as she tries to learn what really happened to her father and uncovers many dark secrets along the way.  Using the framework of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Winters explores several issues of the the time including racial divides and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, homophobia and the eugenics movement, and the pressure to conform to society that fueled them.  Although Hamlet is by no means the main focus of this book, it plays a critical role in the way Winters portrays her characters and how they interact.  For example, the strained relationship between Hanalee and her Uncle Clyde is a clear reference to Hamlet’s feelings toward his own Uncle Claudius.

Winters has a talent for imagery and her novel is riddled with eloquent descriptions of the wooded town of Elston that paint a vivid image in the reader’s mind and bring the story to life.  She also has an eye for detail and includes several subtle references to brands that would have been commonly used at the time, such as the description of the “distinctive” sound of a Model T and the Canthrox soap that Hanalee uses, which helps transport the reader and make the story feel more realistic.

The challenge The Steep and Thorny Way faces is how to incorporate racial discrimination, internalized racism, homophobia, Prohibition, post-war economic troubles, and Hamlet into one novel.  In some aspects, it gracefully combines several issues, such as how the end of World War One forced many families, like the Markses, to turn to “bootlegging” to survive.  Winters also addresses the issue of internalized racism extraordinarily well and tactfully through the way Hanalee seems to idolize her mother’s and Fleur’s blonde hair and fair skin.  She even manages to offer acceptance for Hanalee at the end of the story, which was refreshing and overall well done.  Winters’s trouble begins when she tries to stay true to the plot of Hamlet.  Hamlet has a very unique plotline that, frankly, is barely believable in the Bard’s version.  With the KKK, Joe’s stories of eugenics in the prison system, and the murder of Hanalee’s father, the connections to Hamlet feel out of place and unnecessary.  The story would have flown much better and made more sense if Winters had just loosely based it on Hamlet and abandoned certain elements, such as the ghost, that make it seem far fetched.  She has so many elements to work with already that she even could have formulated a completely unique plot that still could have addressed the issues of 1920’s Oregon without the confusion that the Shakespeare element brings.

The Steep and Thorny Way was an interesting read that did touch on a lot of major issues that are still problems in today’s society while also keeping the reader interested with a quick-paced plot and many twists.  Despite its pitfalls, it is worth reading for those who have an interest in history and in exploring sides of the Roaring Twenties that are rarely discussed. – Paige P