Moon At Nine by Deborah Ellis

Fifteen-year-old Farrin has many secrets. Although she goes to a school for gifted girls in Tehran, as the daughter of an aristocratic mother and wealthy father, Farrin must keep a low profile. It is 1988; ever since the Shah was overthrown, the deeply conservative and religious government controls every facet of life in Iran. If the Revolutionary Guard finds out about her mother’s Bring Back the Shah activities, her family could be thrown in jail, or worse. The day she meets Sadira, Farrin’s life changes forever. Sadira is funny, wise, and outgoing; the two girls become inseparable. But as their friendship deepens into romance, the relationship takes a dangerous turn. It is against the law to be gay in Iran; the punishment is death. Despite their efforts to keep their love secret, the girls are discovered and arrested. Separated from Sadira, Farrin can only pray as she awaits execution. Will her family find a way to save them both?

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Recommended by a colleague, Moon at Nine tells the heartbreaking story of Farrin and Sadira; teenage girls in love in 1988 Iran.  I must say, I learned a lot from reading about the culture and Farrin`s very different set of experiences.  For instance, Farrin`s parents throw dinner parties to drown out the sound of nearby bombings, and she regularly attend school remembrance ceremonies for classmates.

I have grown accustomed to hearing news reports about political upheavals and violent demonstrations, but reading about the characters and knowing that the book is based upon a true story really struck me. Sadira and Farrin`s love is true and strong; and they decide to risk everything (including their safety) to be together.  I loved reading their secret notes, and their strategy to communicate `I love you` by coughing three times.

“So, we will live then,” said Farrin. “We will love and work as though we could die tomorrow. And then we will have no regrets.” P. 96

They remain true to themselves, even though being gay is against the law and punishable by death in 1988 Iran. It`s definitely a story that needs to be told, and a sad reality that being gay is still considered a criminal offence in more than 70 countries.  The final outcome of their story was tough to swallow.

Even though Moon at Nine is a short and quick read; it is one that will stay with you for a long time. I can definitely see this book being used in the classroom to explore cultural and LGBT issues. Ellis even includes Book Guide Questions to start the important and thought provoking discussions to engage youth.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?
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After putting down three YA titles in a row, In the Shadows of Blackbirds rescued me from my reading slump! The cover, beautiful writing, and haunting photographs immediately drew me in and captured my interest. This historical fiction novel is set in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza and narrated by sixteen year old, Mary Shelley Black. Named after Frankenstein’s author, Mary Shelley is one brave, headstrong heroine- not even war or Death himself can stop her.

Throughout the novel, it is clear that Winters had done a fair amount of research into the time period.  The setting is described in detail and events historically accurate. Gauze masks, public health warnings, visible coffins and death in the streets are not overlooked. Not only was this an enjoyable read, but also an educational one.  I didn’t realize the extent of confusion and panic the flu created, and the many uses of onions! The inclusion of black and white pictures sprinkled throughout work as a dreary visual reminder of the damaging effects of war.  I now can understand the desperation of mourners seeking comfort from spirit photographers and séances.

The plot revolves around the haunting mystery of what happened to Mary Shelley’s ‘sweetheart’ Stephen.  Winters had me guessing along with Shelley, and I was surprised by the violent and brutal ending.  Despite this, a great cast of characters, historical details, romance , mystery and tragedy all amount to one fantastic recommended read!

If you liked the mystery and suspense of  In the Shadow of Blackbirds, check out The Diviners by Libba Bray.

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