Thursday, February 11, 2016

Even witches go through an awkward stage

Jillian Tamaki is an author whose work I really enjoy, and her newest book, SuperMutant Magic Academy, is no exception.

I didn't know a lot about this book heading into it except that it was about mutant humans going through high school.  I was under the impression it would be one story with many characters involved in a big plot.  That's not at all how the book is set up, though.  SuperMutant Magic Academy started as a web comic, so it's written in vignettes that are usually only one page long, much like a comic strip.  Through these, Tamaki provides funny, sweet, and realistic snapshots of high school life.  The characters interact with each other in the classroom, at lunch, in their dorms, and elsewhere.  So many lovely moments in so little space.

What is great about this book is that you can enjoy it just as much by reading one or two pages at a time or by reading it in much bigger chunks.  I would love a copy for my bookshelf; I imagine myself strolling over, picking the book up, choosing a page at random, and then smiling at the humor, poignancy and all-around wonderfulness that comes through on that page.  And then I'd probably read the next page, and then the next, and continue standing there, smiling, until my legs began to complain.

This book is nothing like other fantasy books set in boarding schools.  In fact, it's nothing like fantasy books.  It's more like Calvin & Hobbes.  The characters happen to be magical, but the magic is in zero ways important to the stories that are told (except sometimes to add a dose of situational humor).  Instead, what's important is a group of teenagers nearing the end of their time at high school, making and keeping friendships, understanding truths about themselves and others, learning about what is important to them, and dealing with the normal trials and tribulations of being a high schooler.  The characters are usually very fun and kind to each other; I especially liked how very popular, beautiful, and good-at-everything Wendy always chastised her friends for being unkind to anyone else.  She is the sort of person we all want to be friends with.  And the casual acceptance the characters have for their gay classmates is quite heartening as well.  It's not a big deal.  It doesn't define them.

But even kind people make mistakes sometimes or can be cruel without meaning to, especially at an age when we are all so insecure and worried about our looks and what other people think of us.  That comes through a lot, too, particularly with the character of Frances, the artsy girl that no one quite "gets" (even though she is dating the biggest jock at school).

It's just a really lovely book.  I highly recommend it!

Monday, February 8, 2016

The other side of history

Ronald Wright
As happens every January, I started 2016 with a determination to read at least a few more books from my shelves than I did last year.  I started with Ronald Wright's Stolen Continents:  500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas.  The subtitle is pretty self-explanatory; it's a book that retells the history of the Americas not as a story of inevitable European takeover, but one in which the native populations fought long and hard for their lands and rights.  Wright focuses on five nations in particular:  the Aztecs, the Inca, the Maya, the Cherokee and the Iroquois.

As you might expect, this book is pretty depressing.  There was a tremendous, horrible loss of life when Europeans came to the Americas.  Yes, a lot of American Indians died of disease, smallpox in particular, but a lot of them were also brutally murdered and displaced.  Reading about the immensity of the plague and the brutality of the killings is a very chilling experience.  But it happened, and it's important we acknowledge it.

I learned a lot from this book about the politics and religions and social structures of cultures I don't know a lot about.  I wouldn't say that I am at all well-read on the subject of treaties or laws with regard to Native American nations, but I have read some books on the subject and they are all depressingly similar.  So many broken promises and so much bad treatment.  I am always reminded of Charles C. Mann's excellent book 1491, in which he goes into glorious detail about the cultures and beliefs of so many cultures alive and well in the Americas before Europeans arrived.

Wright's book is a bit harder to read than Mann's, perhaps because his anger is so obvious that it's hard to think of him as an objective writer.  I'm not calling his facts into question, more his interpretation of events and people to always assume the best of anyone who was Native American and the worst of anyone who was not.  In a way, Wright fell into the same trap of stereotyping people that he so hated; it was hard to read and not be reminded a little warily of the whole Noble Savage trope.  Even so, there are so many eloquent and rich quotes in this book from people that we never learn about in school, and I'm so glad that Wright gave them a voice and the spotlight here.

I found a lot of interest in this book, particularly with regard to mestizo culture and the way South America and Mexico approach race relations compared to the way we do in the United States,

But it's hard to read books that delve into this seedier side of American and world history.  It's hard to imagine such a cataclysmic event as smallpox taking out a huge portion of a population, and then a systematic insistence on kicking people when they're down.  The racism that is inherent in colonialism, in conquest, in forced religious conversion, is so overwhelming.  That it happens through every age of human history, again and again, to so many beautiful and vibrant cultures, is just more depressing.  It's like we never learn.

I am glad I read this book, but I would still recommend Charles C. Mann's 1491 over it if you want to learn more about pre-First Contact cultures in the Americas.  Stolen Continents reminded me a lot of An Indigenous History of the United States.  Just because it's hard to read doesn't mean you shouldn't read it.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The dramatic, everyday lives of ordinary people

Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym is one of those authors who, to me, is absolutely perfect for a cozy, quiet winter evening at home, curled up with a big, warm cup of tea.  As the tea warms your bones, so Pym's gentle humor warms the soul.  But there is always a touch of melancholy and wistfulness in Pym's writing, an acknowledgement that no one's life has worked out quite the way they imagined.

Pym's An Unsuitable Attachment has been on my shelf for a few years now, so it was a natural choice for me in my annual January guilt read of books that I own.  It is a quick read.  I finished it in a couple of nights.  And it grew on me after I was done; initially on GoodReads, I was thinking about a 3.5/5.  Now, as I reflect back, I think it more of a 4.5/5.  But neither rating seems quite right, as I can't judge the book the way I judge most novels I read.  Pym's writing evokes so much empathy for her characters, for the situations in which they find themselves.  But the characters themselves don't win me over.  They do not have much depth, we don't see very far into their motivations or reactions.  They're kept always at a remote distance from us.  Later on, I'm always very vague on plot details and characters.  But Pym is such a master of emotion and the lightly-turned phrase that it is, in my opinion, impossible not to be impacted by her writing and the situations she describes, even if the characters are somewhat expendable.

An Unsuitable Attachment is centered on church life in a small London neighborhood that is not quite up to snuff.  You know that it's not up to snuff because there are a lot of immigrants there.  The vicar and his wife, the Aingers, live happily with their cat, Faustina.  New congregants Rupert Stonebird and Ianthe Broome (fantastically named characters if nothing else) move into the neighborhood, separately, and everyone speculates about their backstories.  Mrs. Ainger wants Rupert for her sister but it seems that he prefers Ianthe.  Ianthe, however, harbors a secret crush on her thoroughly unsuitable library co-worker, John.  A couple illnesses, a trip to Rome, an awkward garden party, dinner party, and church gathering later, and things seem to sort themselves out.

One of the things I love about this book and about Pym's writing in general is how she uses her novels to show us just how little we know other people.  There are so many small misunderstandings in the book, between strangers, between acquaintances and friends, even between happily married couples.  Everyone has insecurities, about small things - should I let the other two men order the wine, or does that make me seem less masculine? - and big - can I really be attractive to a man five years younger than me, or is he just after my money?  They all say things they wish they hadn't, and they are all hurt by comments other people make.

For example, one evening in Rome, the Aingers go out for a romantic scroll on their own.  The normally very austere Mark Ainger clasps Sophie's, his wife, hand warmly and tells her how much he still loves her.  Sophie reacts by saying that she hopes her sister finds love, that her sister was made to love and be loved.  This was, obviously, not the reaction Mark was hoping for, and he retreats again into himself.

We might think Sophie unfeeling, but we know that she is not because earlier in the book, she let something slip to Ianthe about how hard it is to break through Mark's tough exterior, to feel as though she has any real connection with him.  " some ways, we're so far apart.  I'm the sort of person who wants to do everything for the people I love and he is the sort of person who's self-sufficient, or seems to be..."  She then goes on to compare her husband to her cat.  "I feel sometimes that I can't reach Faustina as I've reached other cats.  And somehow it's the same with Mark."

Sophie and Mark both seem unable to talk to each other about their feelings, so instead they shower love on their cat, Faustina.  Sophie also works very hard to get her sister Penelope happily paired off with Rupert Stonebird, though it doesn't seem as though the two have much in common.  Penelope, for her part, really just wants to meet someone; she's frustrated and lonely, going home to a tiny apartment every night with no company.

Ianthe, though, stood out the most in this story.  I felt most connected with her, maybe because she is single in her 30s and seems mostly content with her life, though she doesn't like the expectations people place on her.  In one of Sophie's thoughtlessly cruel moments, she tells Ianthe, "You seem to me to be somehow destined not to marry.  I think you'll grow into one of those splendid spinsters - oh, don't think I mean it nastily or cattily - who are pillars of the Church and whom the Church certainly couldn't do without."  (One of those Excellent Women, perhaps.)  Ianthe asks Sophie if she feels that Penelope will also be one of those women, and Sophie firmly says no.  Her own sister, of course, is not meant to sacrifice her life and happiness.

An Unsuitable Attachment is wonderful because it's so real.  I talk at length above about how honest it is in its portrayal of relationships at every stage of development, but it is also wonderfully funny.  There are so many everyday situations that make you smile, so many asides and inner thoughts that are just so perfectly shared, it is a true pleasure to come across them.  Pym mocks her characters, but she does it gently, and she does it in a way that draws attention to the mistakes and missteps that we all make.  "Be kinder to each other," she seems to be saying.  "Give your friend/neighbor/wife/sister the benefit of the doubt."  None of us is living a perfect life, but there are many memorable, happy moments that we can share.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Carnivorous horses #ftw!

I am not sure how she does it, but Maggie Stiefvater can take plots that in zero ways appeal to me and create amazing stories from them.  She did it with the whole star-crossed lovers thing in the Raven Boys Cycle, and now she's done it (or, she did it a while ago, and I've only just got around to discovering she's done it) with swimming carnivorous horses in The Scorpio Races.

Seriously, this book description had me a little nervous when I was considering which audiobook to download next.  It's about a boy who always wins races with carnivorous horses and a girl  who has never raced carnivorous horses but really needs the money, so enters the race.  And then they get to know each other and fall in love by... guess what?  Riding horses together.

It may come as a surprise to you, but I am not an animal lover.  I enjoy animals in the wild, in that I generally like to imagine animals roaming free in the wild and doing their thing.  Sometimes I see a photo of a puppy and think, "Aww!"  But I've never had a pet, I do not want a pet, and I am often flummoxed by the very real, very deep friendships that people have with their pets because I just can't really imagine what that's like.

Also, as a city dweller, it really pisses me off that so many people have dogs but don't take on the task of cleaning up after them.

So, anyway, stories about people's relationships with animals generally don't move me the way they do other people.  It's not like I'm dead inside (but maybe I am?), but I have never experienced that connection myself, so I don't feel the need to read about it.  All that to say - I was not particularly drawn to reading a book about two horse lovers falling for each other.

But I really enjoyed the audiobook versions of the Raven Boys series, and I figured I might as well get back into Stiefvater before the final book in that series comes out at the end of April.

And wow.  I should just trust Stiefvater implicitly (Ok, I say this, but I admit that I can't bring myself to read her werewolf series, either).  This post so far is just a lot of build-up to me not being able to explain to you why I enjoyed this book so much.  Yes, there are some great characters, including the two horse lovers, their horses and the stony, isolated island that is the book's setting.  This is Maggie Stiefvater, so the magical elements are brought to life in a very distinct manner.  The best way I have of describing Stiefvater's brand of fantasy is by saying it's like those massive urban graffiti murals.  There is structure, but there's also coloring outside of the lines.  There's beauty in the grit and smog.  There's a lot of symbolism you probably miss.  But, standing in front of it and looking at it, you don't really care that you don't fully understand it because it's obviously making a statement, and you are glad that you are a witness to it.

I've told you not so much about this book or its key characters, and that's because I feel like me telling you about the plot and the characters will not convince you to read the story.  So maybe just trust me, or trust Maggie Stiefvater, and read it.  Let me know what you think.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The case of the missing foot

Robert Galbraith
I thoroughly enjoy mystery novels and think many of them are excellently written.  I don't generally like to commit to series, but I do enjoy a good mystery series, mostly because I like learning more about characters I love and seeing them grow.  I especially enjoy when authors tackle real issues in their novels, using their characters and the mysteries they confront to provide perspective on the world as it is now.  I think this is why there is often overlap between SFF and mystery fans - the best authors do this really well in both genres.

One author who excels at putting heart and soul (and a lot of humor) into fantasy and mystery is JK Rowling.  Her third book in the Cormoran Strike mystery series, Career of Evil, is a truly excellent book.  It clocks it at about 500 pages; I was at the tail end of a very slow reading year, and yet I managed to plow through the book in only a few days.  I even stayed up quite late one weeknight to finish it, which is rare for me.

What made this book so good?  I mean, yes, there's the whole serial-killer-who-seems-to-have-a-personal-vendetta-against-Strike plot, and that is very compelling to read.  But the mystery portion of a mystery novel is, strangely, never the reason I fall in love with the story.  I spend zero time trying to figure out whodunnit while I'm reading the story (possibly because I almost always skip ahead to the end before I finish the second chapter, but even then, I don't really look for clues while reading the rest of the book).

Really, what made this book for me is that Rowling/Galbraith finally delivered on the Robin Ellacott part of the story.  For the first two books in the series, I really loved Robin as a character - she is strong, kind, loyal and brave - but I hated her fiancee.  I still hate her fiancee, but I understand better now why Robin stayed with him.  We learn much more about Robin in this outing, spend much more time in her head.  I think Robin is where the link to the Harry Potter stories is the strongest in this series (if you happen to be looking for a link).  She is exactly the sort of person Hermione Granger would grow up to be.  And, as you may know, Hermione didn't have the best taste in men, either.

Another plus in this novel's column is that Strike's ex-girlfriend Charlotte gets hardly any mention.  Charlotte was the worst, and I bid her good riddance.  I hope she doesn't return, though that is probably asking too much.  Why both main characters have so much melodrama in their romantic relationships is beyond me.  Much as we learned about Robin in this book, we also learned quite a bit about Cormoran Strike's formative years, and I was a glutton for the information.  Career of Evil was like birthday cake for me.  While I think Strike is coming out to be more of a loner and isolationist than I would have liked, he's still a very interesting person to spend 500 pages with.  I just wish he didn't so easily dispose of women.

Of course, when you have a man and a woman with melodramatic romances in their lives, it's inevitable that there would be sexual tension between them.  And there is, certainly, between Robin and Strike.  It's been building up for three books now, and I'm not sure where it's going or what will happen.  But I assume Rowling/Galbraith knows, and I trust her completely.

The Cormoran Strike (I admit it irks me that the series is named only after Strike and does not mention Robin at all) mystery series absolutely does not fall into the "cozy" subgenre.  They are bloody, dark, and very complicated stories.  But they're also very well-written, and the series improves with each book, so I highly recommend checking them out if you have any interest.  Especially for Robin - it's very difficult not to love her.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Growing up Black in America, continued

Back in September, I posted a review of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me.  The book is often compared to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, so I took the opportunity recently to read Baldwin's work.  While I can certainly understand the parallels between the two books, I think they are absolutely complementary and having read one only makes your experience of the other even better.

James Baldwin's book was written in 1963, a response to the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It is deeply personal, a call to action to all Americans to accept that this has always been a multi-cultural, multi-racial society.  Baldwin has so many strengths in the way he writes, but the one that most draws me in is the passion that he puts into every word.  You can almost imagine him sobbing as he writes about his difficult relationship with religion, clenching his fist as he tells us about the many times he's been treated badly.  And yet, through it all, he stresses kindness and compassion over anger and revenge.  This is a deeply intimate book, and I can only imagine how much it took out of Baldwin to write it, to share his own story and his own misgivings and so much of himself.

Some quotes that stood out to me while reading this book:

“There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that *they* must accept *you*. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love.” 
- To his nephew

“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

“It happened, as many things do, imperceptibly, in many ways at once. I date it - the slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress - from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again. I justified this desire by the fact that I was still in school, and I began, fatally, with Dostoyevsky.” 
- On his struggles with religion and the way people use religion

It truly is a thoughtful, articulate, and beautifully written book, and I hope you will read it.

Immediately after finishing The Fire Next Time, I read a recently-released young adult novel called All-American Boys.  The novel is written by two authors, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and has two narrators, Rashad and Quinn.  Rashad is the victim of police violence when a cop assumes that he was trying to steal a bag of chips.  Quinn witnesses his best friend's older brother beating up a kid outside a convenience store.  In case you didn't already assume - Rashad is black, and Quinn is white.

 I first heard about this book in the New York Times Book Review, and honestly, the review is pretty much spot on.  I highly recommend you to just go read that one.  It convinced me to immediately request this book from the library, and I hope it convinces you to read it, too.

What I appreciate most about this book is that it takes both Rashad's and Quinn's journeys seriously.  While Rashad lays in a hospital bed recovering from a broken nose, broken ribs, internal bleeding and more (which, even when you give a cop the benefit of the doubt, is a terrifyingly extreme reaction to someone getting a bag of chips), he feels vulnerable and scared.  One scene that especially stood out to me was when Rashad's father was grilling him about the incident, demanding to know why he would steal, why he would resist arrest, why he would fight.  It's clear that he wants so badly to believe that if you just follow the rules, if you are a good person, then you will be safe.   But Rashad did all of that and still ended up in the hospital.  And it could happen to him again.  And it made his father feel so powerless and frightened to know that he could not protect his son from that.

Quinn, on the other hand, has to come to terms with his own privilege.  He saw a beating and walked away from it.  He could continue walking away from issues like this his whole life and his life would be fine.  He worries that someone saw him at the store, that maybe he was caught on video, that the incident will mess with the dynamics of the school's basketball team and his chance at a scholarship.  Finally, his friend points out that he's not the victim here, that it's not about him, and something clicks.

I love that this book is out there for people to read and consider and use as a way to broach what can be a difficult discussion topic.  There are so many vignettes and conversations that can be used as jumping off points for discussion, so many useful questions and comments that people can use as they consider their own lives and decisions.  I especially think if you have middle school or high school kids who are aware of everything happening in the US right now but don't really know how to process it or how to respond, this is a great book to give them.  And then talk to them about it, too.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Who cares if you don't understand the story when the words are pretty?

I feel like all my reviews of Patricia McKillip books are basically the same.  "Wow, what beautiful, evocative language!  But... not sure I fully grasped what happened here."

Alas, the same can be said of my experience with The Bards of Bone Plain.  I feel like I was totally jiving with this story until close to the very end, and then I was not at all sure that I knew what happened.  Did I over-simplify it?  Over-complicate it?  Totally misunderstand the symbolism?  What happened to the cauldron and the other thing, why was there so much focus just on the tower?  And how did the physics of things work?  Where was the logic, or was it all just kind of atmospheric?  Agh, so confused!

Honestly, sometimes the way McKillip goes really deep into the intangibles can be very difficult for me to follow.  But there's usually enough of the rest of the story for me to enjoy everything.  Here, there's a light steampunk aspect to the novel (very light) and a wonderfully refreshing approach to the way women go about their business and live their lives.

And seriously, McKillip can write.  Especially her descriptions of music.
Then he heard Jonah's music melding with Zoe's like silver braided with gold, like sunlight with sky, small birds flying out of his harp, and butterflies out of hers, their voices winding together, sweet, sinewy, strong as bone and old as stone.  Together, they transfixed him, spellbound in their spell, his mouth still hanging open, and all the unplayed music in him easing out of his heart with every breath.
So yes.  Definitely worth the read, especially if you have a deep connection with music. 


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