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Book Review: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Series, #3) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

A girl in old-fashioned clothes looks at hersself in a mirror.Summary:
When Charlotte goes away to boarding school for the first time, she’s very excited to get the bed with the particularly pretty wheels right next to the window.  When she wakes up, though, the view from the window looks different, and people are calling her Clare!  She discovers she’s traveled back in time to the same bed in the same boarding school, but during World War I.  The next morning, though, she wakes up in the present again as Charlotte.  This pattern continues, meaning both she and Clare are Charlotte….sometimes.

Review:
I picked this book up because I have an affinity for both boarding school books and time-travel books.  This looked like the best of both worlds to me.  A fun middle grade book that introduces to the reader to two different past time periods–the 1970s of Charlotte’s present and the nineteen-teens of Clare’s present.

This book is the third in a series, but it is completely possible to read it as a standalone.  No mention is made of the events in the first book, and the second book is actually about what Charlotte’s little sister does while she’s away at boarding school.

The concept is intriguing, because instead of time-travel happening once and landing the person stuck in the past (or future), Charlotte keeps switching, spending every other day in the 70s and every other day in the teens.  In addition to the usual issues time-travel books bring up, such as what stays the same and what is actually different throughout time, it also brings up the key question of identity.  What makes Charlotte Charlotte?  Is she still Charlotte when she’s being called Clare?  Why does hardly anyone notice that Clare has changed? Or Charlotte for that matter?  The book thus addresses identity issues that middle grade readers might be going through, but in a subtle way through the time-travel trope.

Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that? (page 66)

The time-travel itself is left as a fantastical mystery, rather than being given a scientific explanation.  There’s something magical about the bed that only makes Charlotte and Clare switch places, but no one else.  This works without an explanation because the young girls being subjected to the time-travel just accept it without explanation.  This is their reality, and it doesn’t matter why it’s happening, they just have to deal with it.  Some readers, though, might struggle with the fact that the time-travel itself is never explained.

The one thing that disappointed me about the book, and that I think would have made it a classic and a five star read, is that the book only explores what happens to Charlotte when the girls switch places.  Clare, her experiences, and her perspective are only heard about through third parties.  The book, while in third person, is entirely Charlotte’s perspective.  Clare, a reserved, proper girl from the nineteen-teens must have been shocked by both the technology and the mores of the 1970s she suddenly found herself in.  So much more could have been explored by telling both Charlotte’s and Clare’s story.  The book misses an opportunity by only focusing on the modern day girl going back in time.  The girl being thrust into the future, a future where she finds out Britain wins the war, and there is suddenly no food rationing or flu epidemic, that is such a cool story in and of itself, and Farmer just never ventures out to tell it.

Overall, this is a book that sets up a fantastical world of time-travel within a boarding school.  It utilizes the switching of two girls with each other in time to explore questions of identity in a way that surely will appeal to many middle grade readers.  The book does not fully explore the story the way it possibly should have, but the young reader will probably enjoy filling in those gaps themselves.  Recommended to all fans of boarding school, time-travel, or historic fiction set during World War I’s homefront.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Previous Books In Series:
The Summer Birds
Emma in Winter

Book Review: The Birth House by Ami McKay

June 28, 2011 2 comments

White bench against a blue wall.Summary:
Dora Rare is rare indeed.  She is the first female born to the Rare family Scots Bay, Canada in generations.  Her dark hair and brownish skin reflecting the family’s Micmac heritage make her stick out like a sore thumb in the area.  However, Scots Bay’s midwife, Miss B., has always taken a shining to Dorrie, and she trains her in the ways of midwifery.  The early 1900s are a tough time for midwives and women, though.  Soon the area is threatened by World War I and male obstetricians, not to mention all the obstacles rural women have always had to face from violent, drunk husbands to too many children.

Review:
This book was quite honestly painful to read, for it lays out so clearly what it is that makes being a woman difficult in society.  Although some things in modern day have improved, for instance we western women have the right to birth control, in other ways things have remained painfully the same.  There are still areas of the world where men have more control over women’s bodies than they do.  It is often still expected for women to be pure when men are not.  Women often feel that they must put up with the wrongdoings of their husband simply to keep the home and family life that they so desperately desire, and on and on.

The book itself is told as a mix of third person narrative and Dora’s journal with clippings from the various newspapers.  This style suits the story well, as we are allowed to see Dora from both outside and inside her own head.  The characters are fairly well-rounded, although the motivations of those who are not Dora are not always the clearest or the most sympathetic, but as most things are from her perspective, that is understandable.

Of particular interest to me, especially with my knowledge of psychology, was the portions of the book dealing with how women are often accused of being insane simply for reacting to the injustices foisted upon them.  I discussed this topic at length in multiple women’s studies and feminism classes.  The idea that the just rage of the trodden upon is often depicted by the rulers as insanity.  This is beautifully depicted in this book for Dora, struggling against many injustices and feeling rightfully irritated and angry, is informed by a male doctor that she is suffering from hysteria–a peculiarly female ailment resulting from female organs.  Her anger and fighting back is thus tagged with a name that let’s others dismiss it as an illness, rather than a just reaction.  McKay eloquently depicts this entire issue without being too heavy-handed.

I was also surprised and delighted to see a portion of the story take place in Boston during the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.  I’m assuming McKay must have visited my city, for she perfectly describes the North End from the buildings to the atmosphere of walking those streets.  This accuracy allowed me to travel back in time to a period of injustices in my own city, not to mention the molasses flood.  It was indeed a delight to read of Boston from a women’s rights perspective for once instead of always reading of the Irish mafia.

The main point of the book comes across throughout it in a gentle way.  The idea that we must continue to struggle and give but not give up or the oppressors will win.

Never let someone take what’s rightfully yours. You can give all you want in life, but don’t give up. (page 337)

It is simultaneously encouraging, uplifting, and depressing to realize that women throughout time have struggled with similar issues.  Yet things are gradually improving, and thus we must not give up for the sake of future generations of women.

This book beautifully depicts the history of women’s rights in the early 1900s.  It is a painfully beautiful read that I recommend all women, as well as men sympathetic to the cause, read.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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