Something I think a lot about when I’m reading a novel is place — I love reading the setting details and getting a real sense of where I am. I do not care if it’s real or imagined, as a good setting will resonate long after I close the book. Throughout the blog, something I hope to continually offer our readers is what I like to call geo-reading: a visual map of places and the books set in or near them.
My parameters are quite simple. If a book takes place in or depicts the setting well enough, I’ll map it with a short synopsis. I’ve got a load of plans for future iterations of this type of geo-reading, but for now, here are 6 America-based stories, their reviews, and their mapping.
Click the link below the map to see a full-screen version of the map and review. Or, if you want, you can just click the link to “continue reading” and see the reviews alone.
View Geo-reading #1 in a larger map
Tessa was born with a port-wine stain on her cheek, a flaw which she both rejects and embraces. Told through a series of cartographic references, North of Beautiful is a sweet story about friendship, family, romance, and about accepting oneself. The acceptance issues range from relationship acceptance, place acceptance, cultural acceptance, and acceptance of ones self. The bulk of the story is set in and focuses on life in Corville, Washington, though much of the second half of this book takes place in China.
North of Beautiful is an ideal read for those wanting something light, enjoyable, but with a good message and strong writing. Some of the characters and situations are clunky or improbable in the greater context, but the story certainly will appeal to those interested in realistic, sweet fiction.
Though marketed for teens, this book will appeal to those 14 and older, including adults.
Although compared over and over to the likes of Twilight and Wicked Lovely, Need stands out among the throngs of new fiction about zombies, fairies, vampires, were creatures, and pixies. Need follows Zara as she is sent from her native Charleston, SC to the middle of no where in Maine to live with her grandmother, following the death of her father (technically, her stepfather and technically, her stepgrandmother).
As she’s on the tarmac in flight, a mysterious man appears to be following her. A series of encounters with the strange man in Maine, as well as a trail of gold dust, convince her that she is being summoned by the pixie.
Where there is ample opportunity for Need to stumble down the path of trite or overworked, Jones does a great job of developing strong and smart characters, as well as beautiful writing and scene setting. The story is clean, with little violence and little coarse language.
Of course, what story would be complete without a budding romance, a little family drama, and a bunch of high school eclectics? Need will appeal to the Twilight crowd, but it will also appeal to those who have not otherwise been sold on the concept of make-believe built into real world situations. The writing will draw you in, and the characters will leave you needing more.
Brennert’s real magic in writing is his ability to carefully follow the life of an individual living through history — the ups, the downs, the exciting, and the mundane. In Honolulu, Brennert depicts the life of Jin, who leaves her life and traditional family structure in Korea to become a picture bride in Hawaii, which she and her fellow picture brides believe is a place covered in golden streets and magic.
Honolulu is a lot like a large flower. You peel away each petal and watch as Jin grows and learns through her choices and her environmental changes (both decided for and decided by her). Beside the historical moments she experiences, we watch as she navigates the terrain of remaining loyal to her heritage and discovering what it means to be American. This is a book of layers.
Brennert did incredible research for the book, and it shows. He captures detail amazingly well and is able to delineate definitive historical moments without making them trite or overwritten. His timing in this novel is a bit off, though, because of this. He wants to move on to new ideas and new issues but sometimes leaves older ones too quickly. Within a couple of lines, years may go by without any in between action. In Moloka’i, his first novel, this was better and the time transitions were smoother and more fluid.
Parts of the book dragged and others I could not read fast enough, and that’s the entire point. It’s a story of a person, through and through.
Fans of Moloka’i would like this one, as would anyone with an interest in American historical fiction in the early 20th century, identity, culture, and those who love good writing. The prose is undeniably solid and beautiful.
Though marketed for adults, this book will appeal to older teens who are interested in historical fiction, Korean or Hawaiian culture, particularly during the World War era.
Out of the Pocket is targeted at high schoolers but is much farther reaching. Think Geography Club but with a bit of a more accepting attitude of one’s sexuality. A complete review of the book can be read at my personal blog here. This has been one of my favorite reads this year which is surprising, as it covers all of the topics that some how make me nervous when an author touches: football, getting into college, and coming out.
In the 1940s in the back of the yards neighborhood, there aren’t a lot of work options for women, particularly the teens who are forced to work to keep their families afloat.
Ten Cents a Dance follows 15-year-old Ruby Jacinski as she quits her job in the stockyards for a job as a taxi dancer. Of course, Ruby doesn’t tell her mother how she’s making all of her extra money nor does her mother have a clue the situations that Ruby puts herself into.
This historical fiction is paced well, with incredible detailing, and a fascinating main character. I think that Fletcher did a great job showing rather than telling what the impending background in history is throughout the book, and rather than drag the story down in the fact this was WWII, she does a brilliant job telling the reader about life in the back of the yards.
Ten Cents a Dance is marketed for the teen audience, but this is a book that has proven appeal to adults, as well. Particularly for those with an interest in history, world war II, Chicago, or the underground world of taxi dancers, this novel will be a hit. It is a quick read but it is also a read that leaves you wanting more, more, more.
The book follows Louise and her mother, who is a cheerleader against desegregation in 9th ward New Orleans during the time of Ruby Bridges. The story moved quick and I think the characters were done relatively well. The historical and place settings were done realistically and with enchantment and with a bit of a dark cloud of impending trouble.
I think, though, Sharenow — who is a writer and producer for A&E — misses an opportunity here. He picked an interesting time, place, and perspective, but he seems to not delve deeply enough. I don’t think we get enough of the story. We get the icing and no cake, when there is prime opportunity to deliver both without getting in any way preachy. I think this’ll just be a missed opportunity, though it is certainly not a lost cause entirely.
I think this could be an interesting companion book to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Taught well or read by the right person, it’ll strike a chord and perhaps spur a real interest in Ruby Bridges, the historical south, and issues of segregation — both from the side of the segregee and segregator.