Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

May 28, 2009

Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson

chainsIt’s not often I read historical books on the Revolutionary War, even less often that I read books on slavery. While I live in Massachusetts, a state rich with history especially pertaining to the Revolutionary War, and I love that history, it has never been one of those eras that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. So when given the choice, I’ll pick up a book on almost any other time period. I am so glad I didn’t pass on Chains.

Chains takes place at the onset of the Revolutionary War. Isabel and her little sister Ruth, who were supposed to be freed after their owner, Miss Mary Finch, died, were instead sold to the Locktons, Loyalists living in New York City. As the British take over the city, Isabel struggles to determine who she can trust and how to get out of the hopeless situation she is in.

One of my favorite aspects of this book were the openings of each chapter where a quote, advertisement or news article excerpt from the time period was used. I’m a sucker for quotes, so I was won over right away, but each quote was carefully chosen and represented the theme or issue that that chapter dealt with. They really gave you a good context of the mind set during that time.

I liked Isabel. Not only was she a strong character, who had her weaknesses, she was someone you could look up to. Despite her helpless situation, she always remained strong. Even when she had every reason to give up, she didn’t. What makes Isabel even more amazing is her ability to put others needs before hers. That’s not something I come across that often in a character.

I think part of what makes this book so successful is not just a good protagonist but a great antagonist. Mrs. Lockton is one of those characters you love to hate and yet at the same time you can almost feel some sympathy for her at times too. She’s got her own set of problems and is a really well thought out character and used to the fullest.

Two reasons to why I found this book fascinating (asides from my comments above). One, this wasn’t your typical slavery book. Almost every book I’ve ever read on slavery had been set during or around the Civil War. Two, this story was (mostly) told from the Loyalist point of view, again something I’ve not read much on. Typically when I get a book on the Revolutionary War it’s from the Rebels’ point of view. And while Isabel wasn’t a Rebel or a Loyalist, she lived with a Loyalist family and so we get a story that is really told more from a Tory’s mindset. It was very interesting and eye opening.

I’m amazed at the detail and accuracy of this book. I can’t even begin to image how much research had to be done to successfully write Chains. I’d love to see Ms. Anderson’s files on her research for Chains. I whole-heartedly recommend this book. If it’s not on your to read list, add it.

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What is historical fantasy?

May 26, 2009

The answer is simple. Fantasy that occurs in real, or near to real, places in the past.

For example, Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty is set in India and England in the 1890s. Her characters live out their story in several places including London, the fictional Spence Academy for Young Ladies, and the enchanted realms, a world of dangerous magic. Bray has managed to combine a real world historical setting and examples of its social mores–society balls and boarding schools–with an original fantasy world that only few can visit.

Another illustration of historical fantasy is Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery & Cecelia OR The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. This witty story takes places in Regency England, a period of about 40 years from the late 1790s to the late 1830s with a distinct fashion, society, and culture. Instead of a secret magical world, Sorcery & Cecelia includes magic as a part of everyday life in 1817. There are wizards and witches and a Royal College of Wizards, characters who use charm-bags and snuff boxes that carry protective spells, and, of course, an enchanted chocolate pot.

Many fantasy novels have a historic feel to them, but may not be set in a real place in real time. Stories like The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner and many fairy tales come to mind. In the coming months, I’ll be reviewing books that fall into that category, plus straight fantasy when I get the chance.

What are some of your favorite historical fantasy novels?


SCBWI Conference

May 21, 2009

Last Friday, I traveled to the Seattle area to join fellow Damsel Emilie Bishop at the–get ready for super-long title–Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – Western Washington’s 18th Annual Writing and Illustrating for Children Conference. Whew! Now you know why it’s usually called SCBWI.

Newbery Honor award-winning author of HATTIE BIG SKY Kirby Larson (left), Tricia Tighe, and Emilie Bishop

Newbery Honor award-winning author of HATTIE BIG SKY Kirby Larson (left), Tricia Tighe, and Emilie Bishop

About 400 people attended the two-day conference in Redmond, Washington, to participate in sessions led by editors, agents, illustrators, and authors of all types of children’s literature. Among the breakout sessions, my favorite was “Career Management 101” given by Steven Malk, an agent with Writers House. He reminded us it’s important to be patient and that each decision you make impacts your career.

Bestselling author Ellen Hopkins gives her keynote address "Living the Dream."

Bestselling author Ellen Hopkins gives her keynote address "Living the Dream."

I also enjoyed hearing Michael Stearns of Firebrand Literary talk about plot, and Krista Marino, a senior editor at Delacorte Press, discuss what she acquires and why. Over all, Marino said, Delacorte publishes work with strong female voices.

The keynote speeches were entertaining and inspirational. Author Jon Scieszka, who is serving as the first National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, kept us all laughing as he related tales of growing up with five brothers. Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank and other bestselling young adult novels-in-verse, encouraged attendees through the story of her life and writing journey.

Emilie shows off an umbrella stand outside one of the stores at the Redmond Town Center--an outdoor mall in the Pacific northwest!  We didn't need them, though.  I brought sunny, warm weather with me from El Paso.

Emilie shows off an umbrella stand outside one of the stores at the Redmond Town Center--an outdoor mall in the Pacific northwest! We didn't need them, though. I brought sunny, warm weather with me from El Paso.

Writer’s conferences can be both exhausting and educational. And processing everything you come away with can take time. But if you get the opportunity to attend one, take it!


What is historical fiction?

May 14, 2009

Historical fiction is, obviously, fiction that takes place in the past.  But not the “last week, when I had that awful cold and I dropped my phone in a puddle” past  Historical fiction is set at least sixty (some literary-types say fifty) years in the past, at least according to the classical definition. 

Why fifty or sixty years?  I’m not really sure, but the important part is that historicals are set before the birth of the author, so the author must research the major historic events and daily life of the time period in their story.  And oh, baby, does it require research!  (That’s another post all on its own, so stay tuned.)  It also separates historical fiction from books that are just plain old.  On my favorite book list, I include Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, and L. M. Montgomery’s novels under “historical fiction and classics read for their historical value.”  By this I mean I read these books to experience another time period, but they were set within the lifetime of the author.

Historical fiction also makes clear use of its past setting.  There is a reason it isn’t set in the modern day, whether because of a historic event like a war or because of some aspect of that era’s daily life.  In my historical novels, the main character and her sister are evacuated from their home in London because of Nazi air attacks in 1940.  Fast forward seventy years, cut out the war, and I’d lose all the worry the girls feel over their mother and the secret about their heritage that must be kept at all costs.  Not to mention losing swing music, saddle shoes, long train rides, hand-written letters…  Much less fun, and a very different story than what I’ve written.

There are plenty of sub-genres within historical fiction, and some of them are represented by my fellow Damsels in Regress.  Historical fantasy, like Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, uses magic and other fantasy elements in an otherwise real historical setting.  Closely related, time travel involves characters who can move between time periods, often creating funny situations as characters try to survive in a world different than theirs.  Fictional history, like Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, tells the story of real historical figures in a fictional style, rather than the other types, which place fictional characters in a real past setting.  Alternate history takes a “what if” approach by changing an event in history, like who won a war, and examining what life would be like if that had happened.  Other major genres in mainstream fiction, like mystery and romance, use plenty of historical settings as well.

Most of all, historical fiction gives us a glimpse of another time, another way of life, and another way of looking at the world.  It’s fun to read, fun to write, and (I hope) fun to blog about every week!