Tag Archives: adult

Book Review: Camaraderie Evades All the Crooked Saints

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I’ve begun rereading Blue Lily, Lily Blue, and I think I’m finally ready to talk about Maggie Stiefvater’s latest, All the Crooked Saints, which I finished back in early December.

If you’ve been with me a while, you’ll know that I fell and fell hard for The Raven Cycle, that I adored The Scorpio Races. I can’t say the same for All the Crooked Saints—the only other of Stiefvater’s novels that I’ve read, and as a later novel, one that I thought would build on the best elements of the other books that I’d read.

This was a different novel for Stiefvater. This was one of those deeply personal novels that she needed to write. (She has written a lovely, insightful piece on her Tumblr about this novel).

Stiefvater’s unique command and beautiful use of language was still on full display here as was her grasp of magical realism, that sense that, yes, this is real, but there is fantasy too, and the two don’t make either one any less true. This is the first of her novels that I’ve read (that she’s written?) with a predominantly non-white (in this case Mexican-American) cast. This is the first that I’ve read (that she’s written?) that can qualify as historical fiction, set in 1962 Colorado with talk of German POWs who work the farms during the previous generation’s childhood, and the music and pop icons of the day. There was lots that I thought that I would love—and I did love—but it lacked one crucial thing:

What I think kept me on the outskirts of All the Crooked Saints was the characters themselves. I fell for the “blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening” friendship of the boys and Blue, and like Blue “now that she’d had this kind, she didn’t want the other.” The protagonist of All the Crooked Saints, Beatriz, claims to be a girl without feelings. She has a difficult time relating to anyone and is forbidden to even talk to the people in her community who are not family. That kind of easy, “all-encompassing” friendship cannot exist for Beatriz (BLLB 103).

Beatriz is a lonesome in the way the Stiefvater defines lonesome herself in Blue Lily, Lily Blue: “a state of being apart. Of being other,” a philosopher, a genius thinker, a rationalist, scientist (28). In her case, this lonesomeness seems mostly self-imposed, a prison built of her belief in others’ cruel words about her having no feelings. I enjoyed her insights, but I missed others. She learns. The whole book is about achieving the miracle of overcoming one’s own worst faults, and Beatriz learns that she does have a heart and that faults can only be overcome in an accepting relationship, with love. But she learns slowly, and it’s not till near the end of the book that she has learnt this truth.

Beatriz’s otherness and lonesomeness were sort of the point, but it also kept me from feeling close to this novel and the characters in it—even Beatriz herself.

As an exploration of overcoming, of exploring and confronting the deepest, ugliest parts of ourselves, this book is important, this book means a lot to me. But I just didn’t enjoy it in the way that I wanted to enjoy it. I’m so glad that there are others who did. A second reading later may alter my perception of it some.

I did enjoy the languages. I enjoyed the scant scenes of the camaraderie—especially between the petitioners stuck with one miracle but not the second.

***1/2

Steifvater, Maggie. All the Crooked Saints. New York: Scholastic, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

 

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Book Review: A Christmastime Rebellion in the Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

This is my third book in the Enderverse. I found the rereleased hardcover at Barnes & Noble and got so excited. It was nearing Christmas when I did, and I am a sucker for Christmas fanfictions, so a canon Christmas novella in a world that I’m just falling in love with was near irresistible. So I ran to the library.

This happens mid-Ender’s Game/Ender’s Shadow, when Ender is newly transferred to Rat Army, but the majority of the novel does not revolve around Ender.

Zeck Morgan is rescued from his ultra-religious father, a Puritan minister who whips Zeck to make him more pure. Zeck has a perfect memory, which his mother believes is from God, though she warns Zeck to hide that memory from his father, whom she thinks will believe it from the devil. The IF sees that memory as a useful asset in a soldier—and it seems implied that the soldier who comes for him believes that he is rescuing Zeck from his abusive household, though Zeck resents being drafted.

In Battle School, Zeck maintains his father’s preached pacifism and won’t fire his weapon, though he enters the Battle Room and does the school work for Battle School. He is disliked by the students.

A homesick Battle School student, Flip Rietvald, sets his shoes out on Sinterklaas Eve, and Dink Meeker, noticing the childlike gesture, gives him Sinterklaas gifts, a silly poem and a pancake shaped into a F.

Religious observation is banned in Battle School and Zeck’s father has preached that Santa Claus is a manifestation of Satan, so Zeck complains to Commander Graff about the Dutch boys’ observation of the holiday. The punishment that Flip and Dink receive spurs Dink to begin an underground celebration—not in the name of Christmas, but in the name of Santa Claus (in all his forms), whom he argues is not a religious figure but a cultural icon, his day celebrated even by the atheists of countries where he exists, and nationality impossible to ban. Children begin to give one another gifts with a sock attached so that the gift is known to be in Santa’s name.

The battle brews. Zeck stirs up trouble by convincing one Pakistani soldier that prayer is a national observation as much as is the celebration of Santa because Pakistan was formed as a Muslim nation, and so Muslim identity is national identity. When this results in several Muslims being led away in handcuffs for religious observation, the Santa Claus celebration stops; the fight becomes too serious, the consequences too dire; it ceases to be fun, and the celebration ceases to be in the spirit of Santa Claus, “compassion and generosity […] the irresistible urge to make people happy […] the humility to realize that you aren’t any better than the rest of us in the eyes of God” (78).

Because this series is Ender’s story more than any of the others’, it is Ender who gets to give the last Santa Claus gift of the book and demonstrate the team-building prowess that makes him such an astounding leader. He corners Zeck and convinces him of the error of his father’s protestations, battling Zeck Bible verse for verse and sharing secrets about his home-life and his abusive brother.

This story mostly provides an interesting platform to discuss national observations versus religious observations, particularly around the Christmas holiday but around all religions—though only Christianity and Islam are discussed—the intersection and dissonance of nationality and religion, religious tolerance, and the fake religious proclamations of those whose words are not reflected in their actions.

It ends on a happy note, which I almost require of my Christmas fanfiction but has even more substance than I’m used to expecting from a good Christmas ficlet—for which I was not ungrateful. I like more of a Christmas meal than Christmas fluff.

Ultimately, this was a good diversion while I prepped and then survived the Christmas holiday.  It was good food for thought.  It was not the cleanest and tightest of Card’s writings, but it was interesting to spend more time with Dink and more time with some of the previously nameless Battle School students.

***

Card, Orson Scott. A War of Gifts. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty-Macmillan, 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Tor, or Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Shadow of the Hegemon: Political Thriller in a Sci-Fi Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

The sequel to Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, follows Ender and the colonists that he heads decades in the future on a distant planet, encountering a new alien race. That’s all well and good (I assume), but following Ender’s Game Alive, I wanted to know what happened to all of the Battle School students, not merely to Ender, so I sought out something a little closer to Ender’s Game in time and space. I skipped over Ender’s Shadow, which happens simultaneously with Ender’s Game, and jumped to the second in that sequel series, The Shadow of the Hegemon. This book deals with the immediate aftermath of Ender’s Game (and Ender’s Shadow), specifically what happens to the jeesh once they arrive back on earth, though it focuses pretty solely on Bean and Petra, and on Peter Wiggin’s quest to attain the title of Hegemon.

I want to start by saying that I don’t read many political thrillers—or not books that would be primarily classified as political thrillers (I suppose Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire could be classified as such). I’ve never read Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, Brad Thor, or any of those other household names in the genre. But I was sucked into this one, which disguises itself as a science-fiction book by virtue of association with the other books in its series. I won’t pretend to judge this book against others in its genre, but I do qualify it as more of a political thriller than a science-fiction book. Card describes this as being inspired by the board game Risk, a game of global domination through alliances and wars (I think; I’ve also never played Risk).

I say this is more political thriller than science-fiction because all of this book happens on Earth and its drama is in the geopolitics and the child geniuses who are pulling at the strings, toying with world leaders and directing the militaries of various countries.

Shortly after arriving back in their own countries, the entire jeesh is kidnapped—except for Bean, who is meant to be killed with his family in an explosion, which he escapes using a superior “Spidey” sense for danger. For a while, the book becomes an Earth-wide whodunit with every major country and political group as a suspect. I enjoyed this part of the book a lot. I enjoyed the mystery, and I enjoyed the insights into each country’s desires and assets. I enjoyed (and was horrified to find) that I could recognize the seeds of Card’s future-Earth geopolitics in my mediocre understanding of the political aspirations of today’s superpowers, that I found myself nodding along as the characters laid out the clues.

Petra having gotten a message to Bean, and Bean having gotten a message to Peter Wiggin, the three reveal that the architect of the jeesh’s capture is Achilles, a character from Bean’s past (I have not read Ender’s Shadow or I’m sure I’d know more about Achilles, but I picked up enough through Shadow of the Hegemon to know that he’s a dangerously smart, savvy, charismatic psychopath who has killed in the past and will kill in the future). Only Petra remains captive after that, Achilles interfering directly with her rescue and whisking her away to India, where she is forced to take part in the planning of a war for Indian expansion into Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, though her intelligent plan for guerilla warfare is ignored for reasons that only become clear as the novel and Achilles’ complicated plan to sew chaos unfolds.

Bean meanwhile goes to Thailand and earns the trust of Suriyawong, another Battle School graduate and a member of Ender’s Dragon Army and now the nominal head of the Thai military’s planning division. With his knowledge of Achilles and Petra and military strategy in general, Bean helps to predict and to thwart what can be thwarted of Achilles’ plan, though Bean’s larger goal is always to save Petra.

Achilles is playing the nations against one another, but he is also pitting himself against Bean, working to destroy Bean.

This is Bean’s story (spoiler in white) and ultimately Bean’s victory to paraphrase the novel.

I loved to hate Achilles. I loved his dialogue, his speeches. And that’s of course how charismatic dictators rise to power, but—thank God—this kid is fictional. He’s at his best when he is convincing the Pakistani president to join a ceasefire with India and move Pakistani troops away from the border.

I loved the back and forth, the squabbles of Peter and Bean, two kids too bright for their own good.

I loved that Petra had so much more agency in this novel, so much more of a role, that the women (not only Petra, but Carlotta, Mrs. Wiggin, and Virlomi), who were largely absent in Ender’s Game even with the insertion of Major Jayadi in the audioplay that I listened to were here and were bigger parts of the plot.

I have some reservations about this audiobook, however. Some of the cast of the audioplay that I listened to for Ender’s Game reunited (I say reunites because I listened to this book second, but this book was actually produced first, so really they reunited for Ender’s Game Alive) for this audiobook, but not all of them, and this was a full audiobook, narration included. The voice actors took different parts and read different sections. But they could not decide how to pronounce Achilles. Though Peter had to hide that he knew that it should be pronounced A-SHEEL to avoid sounding more knowledgeable about current events than his parents. By the end of the text, even Bean’s voice actor had caved to the anglicized Greek pronunciation, ə-KIL-eez. That could be intentional. Perhaps Achilles remade himself into the Greek Achilles, adopting the more prominently used pronunciation as he became not the leader of a street gang but a puppet master on the global stage. I had thought that the voiceover of the word Hegemon was some weird conspiracy, something done to give the name importance and prominence, and it actually didn’t occur to me till reading a review on Goodreads that this was a poorly dubbed voiceover of a mispronounced word—which makes me wonder more about the conflicting pronunciations of Achilles. In the last few bits, when most of the primary characters were again sharing the scenes, the voice actors returned to more of an audioplay format, with everyone voicing the dialogue of their primary characters; I like that format better, and I liked to see its return, but it makes me question: why not do that sooner? Achilles and Petra share most of the book, yet lines of dialogue where they shared a scene were voiced by one or the other of the narrating voice actors.

Retrospectively, maybe this is one to read and not to listen to on audio. Maybe.

But this was a story I wanted and a story that I liked a lot with compelling characters.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Shadow of the Hegemon. Narr. David Birney, Scott Brick, & Gabrielle de Cuir. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki. Audio Renaissance-Tor-Holtzbrinck, Sound Library-BBC Audiobooks America, 2006. Audiobook, 11 CDs. Shadow of the Hegemon first published 2000.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Audio Renaissance, Tor Books, Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC, Sound Library, BBC Audiobooks America, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Ender’s Game Alive Springboards My Dive into the Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, behind the scenes videos, and full cast list.

Time for one more reader’s confession: I’ve never before read an Orson Scott Card novel (though I did once read a book of literary criticism about Severus Snape to which he contributed). I was only vaguely aware of the plot of Ender’s Game. The novel and Ender’s Shadow have been sitting on my bookcase for years, but they never seemed to be the books that I wanted to read. As I work through the Valley libraries’ collections of audiobooks, I am also working my way through the books and authors that I probably ought to have already read.

When I found this version of Ender’s Game, Ender’s Game Alive, rewritten by Card as an audioplay, I couldn’t resist. During my brief stint as a London resident, I became fond of radio dramas. My host mother sometimes left the radio on, and I would enjoy snippets from the lives of fictional characters while I cooked or ate. Where that was written to be enjoyed in snippets, to catch a listener up quickly if she’d missed a few episodes, Card wrote Ender’s Game Alive to be enjoyed as a collected whole (more what I expect from an audiobook than a radio drama). Had I skipped a few segments of Ender’s Game, I think I would have been wholly lost.

I was however able to follow and enjoy this dramatization without having read Ender’s Game or having had any other introduction to Ender’s world.

My roommate will tell you that I quite a few nights came home complaining about this dramatization. I was annoyed at the ickiness that the physical fights made me feel, the squeeze of my stomach at the groaning, squelching, cracking, grunting, ringing sound effects. I was distraught as I realized what was happening before Ender did. I was disconcerted by the similarities between Peter’s intentions for Locke and Demosthenes and the nationalism and demagoguery of today. All of that probably means that I really enjoyed this drama and disliked being away from it when I had to turn off the car.

For those who are unaware as I was of the plot Ender’s Game: After Earth’s first two wars with an alien species called the Formics, genius children from every country are monitored to determine their usefulness to the International Fleet (IF). Ender Wiggin is one of these geniuses, the third child in his family, allowed by the government despite a law limiting families to two children because his two siblings both showed such promise before being ruled unfit for combat. Because one officer, Colonel Graff, decides that the Ender is the One, he is taken to Battle School at a younger age than is average and proves himself again and again a creative and unbeatable commander of the other children in their mock battles against rival commanders and armies despite the odds being continually stacked against him by Graff and the other adults in order to speed his training. He rises very swiftly up the ranks, ultimately joining Commander’s School, where he is eventually reunited with some of his friends from Battle School, and they are tested with a string of rigorous battles, each commanding fleets, and Ender commanding the commanders.

By contrasting Ender with Mazer Rackham, an independent thinker who operates best alone and with all of the less successful commanders in Battle School and with his two siblings who were never given the chance to try, Card says an amazing amount about the type of commander that he believes is best. Ender is an independent thinker, but operates best with a team of loyal friends, whose trust he has earned, and with whom he spends time and maintains relationships.

At some point within the novel, Graff admits that it is Ender’s capacity for love (for his sister and for humanity) that make Ender the One leader that humanity has needed. He values friendship and values cooperation more so than many of the other leaders of Battle School. Soldiers become friends and become loyal to him instead of merely obeying his orders out of fear or duty. As often as he can, he will avoid conflict, but when he does fight, he is calculating and vicious, making sure that battle need only happen once and that he will be victorious.

The ending of the book reminds readers that war is always a tragedy, that diplomacy should always be attempted, that the defeated of any battle are not nameless nor faceless nor without their own victories and histories, that winners of wars are not left untainted and unscarred by their victory.

This version of the tale is largely “narrated” by Colonel Graff and Major Jayadi, a character who seems to have been created for this dramatization (again, this is my introduction to Ender’s world), and whose role seems mainly to be as a child psychologist. The two bicker over Ender’s care and dissect his thoughts and actions from videos from his feed and then from surveillance videos at Battle School. It’s an excellent way to get around not having any actual narration, a way to show both thoughts and action while the reader is allowed only dialogue and sound effects—although such a go-around is largely only possible within a science-fiction such as this. With a huge cast and no dialogue tags, that each character has a specific voice actor helps to keep the cast straight. The child voice actors don’t sound as young as the characters that they claim to be, but this is much as films and television series almost always cast characters in adaptations as older, particularly when these children are asked to take on adult problems. The different accents here help not only to keep the voices distinct but also to underline the I in the IF. I appreciate that Card’s wonderfully diverse cast, that he didn’t let the chance at international cooperation slide past (despite knowing that after this novel, the countries of the world descend again into chaos). One of Ender’s commanders is one of only a few girls in the IF. One of his commanders is a Muslim from North Africa who references Allah and uses Arabic within the text. Another is Jewish and Israeli. Another grew up as an urchin on the streets of Rotterdam. One of the first children in Battle School to be kind to Ender is Japanese. The values and histories of each character’s home nation are allowed to inform the character.

I was struck in this book by Card’s decision to give the kids of the novel power through language. Ender denies his given name, Andrew, in favor of the name that his sister called him before she could say Andrew. The adults of the novel recognize that Ender is the name that he calls himself and so use this name. It’s the children’s Battle School slang that gets adopted by the adults as they spend more time with Ender. His team, for example, is called a jeesh, a term first used and defined by Alai, an enemy of Ender’s who becomes one of his closest friends.

I think because of how this story echoes today’s politics, I can’t let it go. I continue thinking about it, two weeks later, and am drawn to Card’s newest book, Children of the Fleet, despite not having read any intervening novels. I’ve begun another of his audiobooks already.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game Alive: The Full-Cast Audioplay. Exec. Prod. Steve Feldberg and Wil Snape. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle de Cuir, and Mike Charzuk. Dir. Gabrielle de Cuir. Skyboat-Brilliance with Audible, 2013. Audioplay, 7 CDs.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Skyboat Media, Brilliance Audio, Inc, Audible, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audioplay.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: African Myth and an Adult Hero’s Tale in Anansi Boys

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Reader’s confession time again: Anansi Boys is the first novel of Neil Gaiman’s that I have ever read. And I didn’t even read it, really; I listened to Lenny Henry read it and give voices to each of the characters while I drove my car back and forth across town.

While Anansi Boys is sometimes billed as a sequel to American Gods, I can attest that it works just fine as a standalone as long as one is prepared to accept that the old gods live still. And I am more than used to the idea, being a fan of Rick Riordan’s.

I’m familiar with Anansi as a trickster spider god from Africa. I think it was Reading Rainbow that first introduced me to the character (but now that I’m looking, I can’t find any reference to such an episode). Much beyond that, I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, but Anansi tales are woven into the text, making any background on the character unnecessary. Gaiman even gives some of the evolution of the tales, explanations of how some people sometimes think that Anansi is a rabbit, how Anansi’s tales became African American Br’er Rabbit tales.

Because according to the novel all stories are Anansi’s, I think of this almost as much as a story about stories and the crafting of a story as it is about the way that the characters maneuver through their complicated and twisted relationships and situations, particularly because stories and songs are given such power in the novel. As a hero’s journey, as someone who reads primarily children’s and teen’s literature, it’s nice to read a bildungsroman for an adult where the everyday complications are bosses, difficult clients, worries about money, worries about adult relationships, and future in-laws. All of that is becoming more relevant to me than worries over turning in homework on time, seeing school bullies between classes, my tier in the social hierarchy, difficult teachers, or parents being unsupportive.

In this tale, Anansi dies of a heart attack while singing karaoke and flirting with young tourists in a bar in Florida. His son, Fat Charlie, who is embarrassed by his father whom he thinks made it his mission to humiliate Charlie, flies from London for the funeral. The only other attendees are a few old women, neighbors of Anansi’s and Fat Charlie’s and his mother’s when they lived in Florida. One of the older women reveals Anansi’s godhood to Fat Charlie and also reveals that Charlie has a brother about whom he has forgotten. She tells him to tell a spider if he ever wants to contact his brother.

Back in London, Fat Charlie continues at his job as an accountant for the Grahame Coats talent agency. Charlie and his fiancée Rosie continue wedding preparations, and Rosie insists that Fat Charlie should try to reach out to his brother to invite him to the wedding.

After drunkenly whispering to a spider that it would be nice if his brother would visit, Spider shows up, moves into the house, and begins an initially perhaps well-intentioned but increasing hostile takeover of Charlie’s life, house, and girlfriend.

I wish the ending of the romantic tangle had been a little less obvious.

I was mostly entwined in the story of the mystical coexisting with the everyday—and before Spider, Fat Charlie’s life is very everyday—the way that Spider’s powers manifest, the way that Tiger manifests in the world, the spirit journeys that Charlie takes with the help of the older women.

Maybe because it’s taken me so long to read a Gaiman novel, maybe because many are saying that this is one of his least, I was not as blown away by Anansi Boys as I maybe even wanted to be. I enjoyed it. I think Lenny Henry’s voices may have done much to keep this story exciting. But I didn’t love it, though I did rave when given the opportunity the morning after I’d finished it to a willing party.

I think this would be a good read for those who want to learn a little mythology without reading mythology straight—though I’m not sure why anyone would want not to read the mythology straight. I doubt Riordan will ever touch African mythology—though someone from his imprint might. I do wonder how someone from the African diaspora reacts to Gaiman’s take on their mythology. I wonder if Anansi is still a god anywhere in the world. I wonder if Gaiman should have taken on this subject, as much as I enjoy it. Most of the characters are from the Caribbean, members of the African diaspora, and to my knowledge, Gaiman is neither. He seems to have handled the mythology well, but I’m not the one to decide.

****

Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. Narrated by Lenny Henry. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. Audiobook, 9 CDs. First published 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Neil Gaiman, Lenny Henry, HarperAudio, HarperCollins, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: The Importance of The Hate U Give

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Click to visit EpicReads for links to order, summary, video, discussion guide, reviews, and author's bio.

This review is based off of an ARC of The Hate U Give.

I’ve officially lost count of the books that have made me cry but remain fairly sure that those books could still be counted without my needing any toes—possibly without my needing two hands.  This book has earned itself a finger in the count. By page 66, there was a large tear stain on my pillow. I flew through this book in six days (admittedly, the last three days that I was reading it, I could do little but lie still, having a recently acquired broken arm).

This book is important. It’s important now. It’s going to be important later. The rise of cell phones with video capability has increased public awareness of police violence. Despite civilian videos and despite body cameras and dashboard cameras for police, police are rarely convicted of murder or even manslaughter, and most often those killed are African Americans. This disparity between known and seen violence and convictions has led to many protests in city streets across America. Several have been large enough to have captured media attention and live as bywords. Ferguson. Following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, unarmed and fleeing an altercation with Officer Wilson when he was fatally shot, protests took place, each over the course of several days, from August 2014 to August 2016. In September 2016, North Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency as violence escalated between police and those protesting the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott near his parked car.

The events following the shooting of the fictional Khalil Harris follow a too familiar pattern, one I recognize from having witnessed—albeit via mass and social media coverage and never directly—the aftermath of shootings like Michael Brown’s and Keith Scott’s.

I hope one day that these events become history, that each new generation, each year, every few months won’t have another name to remember, and that this book can become a reminder of a time passed. This book will be important then.

For now, though, events like those in the book are too common. This book now serves not as a reminder of how black people were treated, but a reminder of how they are treated. It stands as a document, more easily accessible than strings of news reports, more tangible perhaps because it can be kept on display on a shelf. And it’s a deeply personal story, told from the perspective of a witness to police brutality, someone in the car at the time of a shooting, a witness to the suffering and resiliency and community of a poor, primarily black neighborhood, a member of that community. The book delves more personally into the feelings behind the protests, behind the frustrations and the anger, than any news article could do, and more personally into the everyday life of someone living within an affected community than most news articles bother to try to do.

Starr Carter is both insider and outside observer of this community. She lives in a neighborhood where rival gangs rage war but travels to a private prep school, where she is one of only a very few African American students. She sees and hears the concerns of the community where she lives, and she sees firsthand the reactions of her primarily white schoolmates. Because she is privy to both reactions, the novel can confront more issues than it could do if only one side was given space. Readers see from Starr’s perspective the hurtful, blasé reaction of white classmates who walk out of classes as protest—but as much to get out of class than out of rage. Readers see from Starr’s perspective the hurt of a community that feels like the system is designed against them and the hurt caused by the effects of that system.

Importantly too, this is a story about a movement, about a system, but it shows the humanity, the everyday experiences of its characters: boyfriends, fights, friendships, Twitter, Tumblr, watching TV together with family, playing video games.  There are a wealth of–not a token (or several token)–characters who are people of color.  There are strong, three-dimensional characters with individual and interwoven histories, strengths and flaws, doubts and convictions.  That in its way is just as important as its content.

The novel is told in a very casual, modern voice. It was at first a little jarring to me. The story opens on a crowded party in Starr’s neighborhood. Some of the slang and syntax was unfamiliar to me, but within a few pages, I was inside of Starr’s head and inside of the action of the story, and once I was inside I no longer was bothered by the casual tone of the novel. I urge anyone who picks up this book to stick with the novel for at least two chapters before deciding to put it down, and preferably to give it three chapters (which brings the reader to a round 50 pages).

*****

Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. New York: Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Angie Thomas, Balzer + Bray, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Pacing Keeps A Darker Shade of Magic Shy of Five Stars

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Click to visit a really cool website by the publisher with links to order, reviews, an excerpt, trailer, quiz, playlist, information about the Londons, and more.

V. E. (Victoria) Schwab is an author recommended to me by several friends in several groups, someone who has come across my radar independently as well with her intriguing blurbs, and someone whom Rick Riordan has reviewed well. Entering her worlds was nearly inevitable, but this was my first foray into her stories. In the Shades of Magic series, four parallel worlds meet in London, and Kell, one of the last Antari, can travel across the parallel worlds via blood magic. Magic in these worlds is an entity of itself, one Kell sees as a friend and partner and one that Holland, another of the last Antari and a citizen of hungry White London, sees as an entity to be subjugated.

Some spoilers. Proceed with caution.

Having unwittingly smuggled a dangerous artifact out of White London, Kell plunges out of an attack in Red London to Grey London, where he crashes into Lila, who does what she does best. I was annoyed that our two protagonists, Kell and Lila Bard, a wanted, masked thief from Grey London—our London—don’t meet until the 130th page. Each is enjoyable company individually, and I happily would have spent a full novel with either one, but I was sure (and correct) that the plot would pick up pace when the thief and the smuggler met.

There’s much to love in A Darker Shade of Magic: a unique and intriguing and well-explained magic and worlds, political strife, and several enjoyable characters—not only Kell, powerfully magical but caught between being an adopted prince and a slave to the royal family; but also Lila, who wants to be a pirate captain, who plays at being selfish but who hides a good heart that sometimes gets the better of her and gets her in trouble; Rhy, the trusting, charming, and flirtatious prince; and Holland, whose story is tragic but who is callous enough to almost erase the pity that I want to feel for him—really, in White London almost everyone is tragic and callous both.

What drags off of the five-star pedestal for me is the pacing. I’ve already said that I thought the plot was off to a slow start. While I enjoyed the world-building, and I enjoyed getting to know the protagonists individually, on the whole it reads as if Schwab was more interested in the world-building than the plot, that the plot was more of an afterthought. And when the plot came, it seemed hurried. I thought we might spend a book in each London, a trilogy transporting the artifact from Grey to Red to White to Black London. We did not. The whole of the plot that I thought was coming happened in this one book; the artifact was taken safely out of play and those who had sought to use it and sought to sew chaos with it were defeated. Because I didn’t have the buildup that I expected for it, the whole of the final battle and arguably the whole last third or so of the book where the protagonists were discovering why they had come into contact with this artifact at all seemed more anticlimactic than I expect it was meant to be; it seemed rushed and I wasn’t allowed to savor its twists and turns as I might have wanted to do.

For all that, the plot seems to have been wrapped up well. I see a few ghosts that might come back to haunt the protagonists, but I wouldn’t have given them much thought, save that I know that there are three books. I have very little idea what might be in store for the next two books, no real idea of what other big bads there might be to fight.

I am willing to give Schwab I think at least a second book. There’s enough to like, and enough I’d still like to learn about the worlds and their magic and their histories. And I want to see Lila become the pirate queen that she deserves to be—and I think that she will be.

****

Schwab, V. E. Shades of Magic, Book 1: A Darker Shade of Magic. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty-MacMillan, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by V. E. Schwab, Tor, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, or MacMillan.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Search: One Long-Awaited Answer Tangled in Many Threads

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This link will take you to the hardcover collection of all three parts of this trilogy.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

After the close of the television show, the team responsible for Avatar: The Last Airbender and a few fans (Gene Luen Yang of American Born Chinese among them) began a series of comics that follow Team Avatar beyond the television show and help to bridge the 70 year gap between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. There are currently five trilogies: The Promise, The Search, The Rift, Smoke and Shadow, and North and South. The television series ends with Zuko’s agonized and angry question “Where is my mother?” This second trilogy sets out to answer that question.

Finding graphic novels that appeal to and are appropriate for younger audiences can be difficult (though hopefully getting easier as we booksellers realize the demand and make concerted efforts to point out and to stock graphic novels for children). These are shelved with the adult graphic novels in Barnes & Noble, but there is nothing in these first two trilogies at least that is any more adult than what is in the television series, even though in The Search there are family dramas, madness, and politics. Often, I don’t think we give kids enough credit.  Really I think these stories have more appeal for the 7-17 age range than they do for most adults—at least than for those adults not already familiar with the television series and invested in the characters and the world.

This particular trilogy deals more with the personal stories of the characters than the larger world-building of The Promise.

Four years back now, I read the first part of this trilogy and was apparently impressed. It’s only now that I’ve gone back and read the three parts together (over the course of eight days).

The Search does quite a bit of bouncing backwards and forwards in time. The past plotlines are done in more of a monochrome (red for those that happen within the Fire Nation and blue for those that happen among the Water Tribe). Still, bouncing between the past and the present was distracting.

I see why doing so was if not necessary then certainly expedient, but I would have preferred I think to have one or several longer periods of backstory (some scenes in the present were 4 or so pages) than so many often abruptly interrupted storylines. I would have been quite happy spending two parts of this trilogy learning Ursa’s story and only one part having Zuko discover it and reconnect with his mother. I wonder if the creators underestimated the level of investment that fans would have in Ursa’s story separate from that of Team Avatar—which would frankly surprise me; they set us up for this level of interest, and surely this story was told partially in answer to scads of fans asking the same question that Zuko had done because Zuko had done.

I actually think that this story may suffer from too many storylines. Exciting as they all are individually, especially with the jumps between times, it was a lot to keep track of: Zuko’s quest with Team Avatar plus his sister, Azula’s madness, the letter given to Azula by Ozai that raises questions about the Fire Lord line of succession, then Ursa’s first lover and childhood home, her marriage and subterfuge and exile, her second marriage and new life, plus the story of Water Tribe siblings living in a haunted forest in the Fire Nation to try to find a spirit who can give new faces but tangling with its massive Wolf Spirit pet instead. The theme of reuniting families and restoring old lives runs through all, but in 228 pages of comic it’s all too much. In a 500 page novel, absolutely, but this isn’t a 500 page novel.

Now, all that said, I do want it noted that I read these online, and the format was a scrolling one rather than a facing page layout. That perhaps made some difference.

***

Yang, Gene Luen and Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search: Parts 1-3. Ed. Dave Marshall. Illus. Gurihiru. Dark Horse, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Gurihiru, Dark Horse Comics, or anyone involved with the graphic novel series or the television series. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Family is Central to A Place at the Table

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, excerpts, and reading guide.

This review includes a fairly detailed summary of the plot.  I leave the plot twist out though.

I’ve had an ARC of Susan Rebecca White’s book for years now. Sorry, Susan. But I’m glad that I waited this long to read it, because maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much before I’d matured some more.

This is a heartbreaking story of pain and trauma, of otherness, of love and marriage and ultimately of survival, finding oneself, forgiveness, family, and accepting one’s roots and backstory.

This story follows three primary characters, whose lives all intersect over a cookbook and a shared love of food and a bright and cozy kitchen. It begins in 1929 in Emancipation Township, a black community in the rural, Jim Crow South. There we’re introduced to young siblings Alice and James Stone, close enough to believe that they are able to read one another’s thoughts. After refusing to play the meek black man, James is forced to flee North Carolina.

Leaving the Stones, we join Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son, white, probably upper-middle class, in 1970 Decatur, Georgia. His Meemaw lives in a neighborhood that is now mostly African American. He tries to befriend one of the neighborhood girls, but his brother’s racist language thwarts that. Later in 1977, he finds himself friends with a displaced Yankee, his equal on the track team. The two of them find themselves more than friends when alcohol, a late night, and a sleepover coincide, and Bobby begins a life in exile from his family, first with his Meemaw and later, in 1981, in New York City, where we stay with him through 1991. Bobby during his early years in New York finds himself working at the restaurant, a once-renowned haunt of writers and bohemians, where Alice Stone was once the well-known and –loved chef. He returns the restaurant to its gentrified-Southern roots and gains fame for himself. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s, and he loses his lover and partner to the disease.

Alice’s editor and friend has a niece, Amelia, living in upper-middle class Connecticut. She marries a Southerner from Georgia, who as they begin their life as empty-nesters in 1990, turns emotionally abusive towards her. She struggles with her desire to make her marriage successful and the fear for her own safety.

Individually, each character’s story of hardship and survival is fascinating.

If I was not necessarily eager to return to this book between minutes I was able to read, neither did I want to stay away, with which as much heartache as was in the book and knowing that I tend to avoid reading about characters in deep pain, I think must mean that these characters were well-developed and compelling.

For all that Alice is the glue that holds these stories together (it’s Alice’s restaurant that takes in Bobby, and Alice’s editor’s niece), it’s Bobby with whom we spend the most time, and whose story is explored most fully. As the true tale unwinds, Bobby, though, seems the outside observer, and the story seems more fully Alice’s and Amelia’s and James’. That was a little jarring, but Alice, Amelia, and James’ story makes up in emotional wallop what it lacks in page count.

What all these characters share—apart from a love of good food and cooking—is an exile from family, a crumbling of the idyllic family, and a longing for the return to home (Alice’s cookbook is Homegrown). Alice’s family is broken when James is forced to flee, and James’ worldview is shattered when he realizes himself to be part-white before being forced to flee his home. Bobby is kicked out of his family home after he is discovered kissing a boy. On his grandmother’s advice, he like James before him, leaves the hostile South altogether for the rumored, liberal paradise of New York City. Amelia has never spent time in New York—her family never visited, though they were nearby—but when her own marriage falls apart and with her children out of the house, she finds herself seeking comfort from her aunt, who lives there. Alice and Bobby both cling to their Southern roots through the food that they eat and prepare for others, even as they make new lives for themselves in New York. Amelia discovers her own Southern roots.

None of the characters return to the South but each of them is awarded some measure of reconciliation with their families. So it seems that family is the root to which White argues that one should return and with which one must reconcile to be fully known to oneself.

***1/2

White, Susan Rebecca. A Place at the Table. New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Susan Rebecca White, Touchstone, or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

In the interest of full disclosure, Miss White is an alumna of the graduate program at my alma mater.