Wednesday, May 10, 2017

May Book Review Club: ARABELLA OF MARS

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@Barrie Summy

After a couple of months off, part of which I spent breaking a leg, I rejoin the Book Review Club for one session followed by a summer off. We'll be back in September.

Click the icon above for club members' other reviews. (OOPS--the link's not working. I've appealed for help. In the meantime, take this instead: ) 

Click the book title below for the ARABELLA OF MARS Indiebound page. 

By David D. Levine
Tor, 2016

Get your willing suspension of disbelief primed. Turns out interplanetary space has blue skies and thunderstorms. And asteroids grow oak trees.

I’m a stick-in-the-mud, so as I read ARABELLA OF MARS I wasted valuable breath grumping and moaning about blue skies on the way to Mars, not to mention breathable atmosphere. I kept thinking how much more I would have respected author David D. Levine if the steam-punk space travelers had confronted a vacuum.

Levine salvaged my good opinion by writing a good ol’-fashioned Yarn, befitting a well-regarded writer of short fantasy and sci-fi. (This is his first novel.) Better still, he thought up a feisty heroine.

It’s 1812, and mankind has been traveling in space since the late 1600s. (Isaac Newton had something to do with it.) Arabella Ashby grew up on Mars, which has been colonized by the British in raj-like fashion. At 16, she is accustomed to rampaging around the red planet with her brother, schooled in hunting and other unladylike pursuits by her nanny, a female Martian warrior with eye-stalks and a carapace.

But it’s 1812. Arabella’s mother is determined that her daughter should act like a lady and, what’s more, should do so back where there are marriagable men and nobody has eye-stalks.  She drags Arabella and two younger daughters back to England, leaving her husband and son behind to run the family estate.

A year later, word comes that Arabella’s beloved father has died. Sent to the country to grieve, she discovers a cousin’s dastardly plot to travel to Mars, kill her even more beloved brother, and inherit everything. Space travel notwithstanding, English estates still don’t descend to women. Arabella, her mother, and her sisters will be out on the street.

Arabella to the rescue. Ridding herself of proper female attire bit by bit en route, she makes it to London to sign on as captain’s boy on the Mars Trading Company ship Diana.

Apart from the above-mentioned annoyances of atmosphere and oak trees, the voyage is ingenious. Interstellar ships are more or less round, propelled by three sails catching the breeze generated by space storms or a coal-fired furnace. In a pinch, the crew descends into a hell-hole to pedal for hours. Everything else aboard ship is Patrick O’Brian down to the grog and seabiscuit.

Adding to the fun, although also to my stick-in-the-mud annoyance, is the fact that everyone is weightless. Oh sure, do away with the pesky vacuum but make everything float because it’s a hoot.

I have to admit, it is a hoot.

Levine does confront the pesky fact that the British colonizers are every bit as objectionable on Mars as they were in India. Nobody thinks the Martians could possibly be anything but savages and servants—my dear, they have shells—and British attitudes eventually trigger an uprising. Arabella’s close relationship with her Martian nanny comes in handy.

On her way to Mars, Arabella experiences a shoot-out with a French war ship (Napoleon being on the rampage in space, too) and a mutiny. Having shared with her father a love for automatons, she masters the ship captain’s pet navigation device, a highly intelligent machine called Aadim. Conveniently, the captain himself is a figure of romance.

This is a fun book, and there’s a sequel coming in July. I will be reading it, grumping and moaning.

(Dear FCC: I got this book from the library. Actually, a friend did, and passed it along to me because she figured I’d like it. As always, nobody cares whether I’m reviewing it or not. Most of us do care about net neutrality, so devote your attention to that, please.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

February Book Review Club: HOMEGOING

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@Barrie Summy

We skipped January, so Happy New Year! If you need a break from the news (and who doesn't?) lots of good books to choose from. Click the icon above for reviews. And click the book title below if you're moved to buy the book. 

By Yaa Gyasi
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

In the late 1700s a pair of half sisters, who don’t know each other, are experiencing opposite floors of the Cape Coast slave castle in Ghana, then known as The Gold Coast. Effia, an Asante, lives on the top floor as wife of the castle’s British overlord. She tries not to acknowledge what’s happening in the dungeon, where her Fante half-sister, Esi, is packed literally like a sardine into a cell whose floor is feet deep in human waste. In time, Esi is loaded onto a ship headed for an American slave mart.

Born in Ghana but raised in Alabama, Yaa Gyasi makes use of her dual experience in following Effia’s and Esi’s descendents as they navigate two centuries’ worth of European dominance and vileness on two sides of the Atlantic.  On both sides, there is captivity.

The book alternates between Ghana and the U.S., one representative from each of seven generations.  This is fascinating but a little frustrating because the book is relatively slim—you feel you’re just getting to know a character when it’s time to move on to the next generation.  You never get the chance to sink in. Still, an absorbing read.

Possibly because of her background, Gyasi could be fearless in examining the involvement of Gold Coast tribes in rounding up their enemies for the European slave traders.  (Effia’s son, uneasy but complient, follows his father’s lead in rounding up slaves for the castle’s maw.) She finds more fertile ground in the Gold Coast and modern Ghana than in the U.S., where she almost seems to tick off boxes—emancipation, Jim Crow, ghetto life, jazz, the demoralization of African-American men, drugs, fatherless children. The Ghanaian chapters are more character-driven and richer.

The Door of No Return at the Elmina slave castle in Ghana, 
which visited a few years ago. This castle was run by the Dutch, 
while nearby Cape Coast Castle was British. 
Effia and Esi’s mother left each of them a black stone pendant, but Esi lost hers in the mire of her Cape Coast dungeon. Effia’s gets handed down the generations. This is an obvious but still potent symbol: African-Americans lost a critical part of their heritage when their ancestors were herded out the Door of No Return in one slave castle after another.

Effia’s great-great-granddaughter Akua, plagued by dreams of a fire woman who has made her burn her own children, takes the necklace to a fetish man to see if there’s any way to undo whatever evil is dogging her family.  “. . . Sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home,” she tells her son, Yaw.

“When someone does wrong,” she adds, “whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. But still, Yaw, you have to let yourself be free.”

Although it’s not perfect, I highly recommend this book. It’s heartfelt, talented, and brave, essential qualities in this awful time.

(Dear FCC: I got this book for Christmas and nobody cares if I review it. I’m sure you have better things to concentrate on just now.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

December Book Review Club: GOODBYE STRANGER

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@Barrie Summy

Jingle, jingle. Also, ho. Not feeling the holiday spirit yet, possibly because it's dark and it keeps raining when I want to put the spirit-saving lights on the maple tree out front. And I've about had it with 2016.

Enough whining. If there's a middle-schooler on your gift list, read on and get out the credit card. If, like me, you're a middle-schooler at heart, time to buy yourself a present. 

Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews. And Happy Holidays! 

By Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, 2015

Let’s say you want to stay in a character’s head while she subjects her own motives to brutal analysis, meanwhile remaining cagey about who that character actually is. Turns out second-person narration is just the ticket. Who knew?

Rebecca Stead knew, or anyway she figured it out. GOODBYE STRANGER, a brilliant excursion into the minds of (mostly) seventh graders, intersperses brief chapters in which a mysterious character plays hooky for a day, addressing herself in second person as her situation and identity gradually unfold.  Also interspersed are a boy named Sherm’s letters to his grandfather, unmailed because he’s ticked Nonno Gio walked out on Nonna after fifty years of marriage.

These are not gimmicks. They are paint brushes.

They’re also not the book’s chief beauty. Every now and then, an author displays her (or his) unerring memory of the hell that is middle school, when everything changes, ready or not. Stead tapped into those memories in this book, even more so than in WHEN YOU REACH ME, the only other book of hers that I’ve read. (Going to correct that in a hurry.)

Set in Manhattan, GOODBYE STRANGER offers a full pallette of seventh-grade wonders and horrors. Friends change into strangers, strangers unexpectedly become friends, mistakes bring public humiliations, teachers and parents are oblivious except when they surprise you with understanding, support, and moments of beauty.

Our protagonist is Bridget, who has now decided her name is Bridge. She missed third grade while she recovered from horrendous injuries she incurred rollerskating into traffic. Her survival was a miracle, and now she keeps wondering what that nurse meant when she said “You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl.”  She freezes up sometimes at crosswalks. This year, she’s decided to wear cat ears on her head—even she can’t explain why.

Meanwhile, one of Bridge’s two best friends has suddenly acquired “a body,” to the extent that she’s now the toast of the eighth grade in-crowd: a treacherous accomplishment, it transpires. The third member of the trio has become “kind of a know-it-all.” Sherm has unaccountably  become yet another best friend—not, not, not a boyfriend, thank you very much. Bridge discovers that she can be quite a looker herself if she spends time on hair and make-up. A sensible kid, she decides she probably won’t bother.  

Some things are stable, keeping Bridge on her feet. She and her brother continue their long-held tradition of quoting lines from the animated movie “Frosty the Snowman.” Bridge’s mother, a cellist with her own rich life, knows just how to calm her daughter down after her recurring nightmare of being bandaged like a mummy, immobilized.

Middle school is complicated, requiring more than one perspective. The wonder of this book is its ensemble cast of characters, each one a brush stroke.  Bridge is our focus, certainly, but her friends and family have their own lives and concerns that illuminate hers. The mysterious You-narrator, who’s clearly older, offers glimpses of what may lie in store for Bridge and friends—high school can be its own kind of hell.

All of this is accomplished smoothly, masterfully, painterly, from the heart as much as the head. No writer could ask for more.

(Dear FCC: I read this book because I was going to a conference at which the author was a speaker. I bought it with my own money. Never met the author, and if I had I would’ve gushed like a fan-girl. Middle school lives on.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

November Book Review Club: THE DREAMHUNTER DUET

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@Barrie Summy

If ever we needed to escape into a good book, now's the time. I'm seriously considering spending the next week under the covers with a flashlight. Hey, it worked when I was ten, why not now?

Anyway, here's a possibility. Don't forget to click the link above for more reviews!

The Dreamhunter Duet
By Elizabeth Knox
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006 & 2007

When you’re head-over-heels in love, you overlook a person’s flaws. In time, they either become endearing or you pack up and leave, snarling about toilet seats left up or the way he chews a cheeseburger.

That’s how I feel about Elizabeth Knox’s DREAMHUNTER books. The premise, characters, and world-building are marvelous, breath-taking, the writing evocative yet urgent. I couldn’t stop reading.
I also couldn’t stop griping, especially at the end of the second book.

This is a young-adult alternate history set in Southland (Knox’s native New Zealand) c. 1905. Our teen protagonists are Laura Hame and her cousin, Rose Tiebold, children of the rich and famous. Laura’s father, Tziga, stumbled as a young man into the Place, a separate dimension tied to the “real” world at various geographical points. He returned having “caught” a dream that he shared with others during sleep—this proved  to be a source of solace and therapy, especially in hospitals, but also entertainment. Before long, others learned to enter the Place to catch dreams, and an industry grew up, with dreamhunters selling their dreams to those who needed them for therapy or just wanted the entertainment.

Not everyone can enter the Place, and not everyone who gets in can catch a dream. Tziga’s exceptional talent has made him rich. Ditto Grace Tiebold, Rose’s mother and the wife of Tziga’s brother-in-law and best friend: She is the darling of the Dream Palace, where customers in ornate sleepwear occupy sumptuous bedrooms to share a sleeping hunter’s dream.

Tziga and Grace have constructed a unique family unit. His wife, Laura’s mother, died of cancer, so the families joined households. The two dreamhunters are the breadwinners, but have to spend so much time in the Place that they are hardly ever around to parent and run a household. Those responsibilities are lovingly discharged by Grace’s husband, Chorley, a house-husband who makes films on the side. Laura and Rose are more sisters than cousins, inseparably bonded.

Everybody wants to grow up to be a dreamhunter. When the time comes for Laura and Rose to try, Laura enters the Place but Rose cannot. If you’ve read any YA at all, you see this coming a mile off, simply because Rose wants it so much and Laura doesn’t care. And of course Laura ends up with exceptional dreamhunting talent, inherited mystical abilities, and a hopeless, possibly illegal quest that will uncover hidden evil and throw her and her family into the teeth of danger. Familiar tropes, yes, but so winningly carried out that you’re too breathless to care.

Far less familiar to the YA reader is an omniscient point of view that puts us in the heads of adults, not teens, about 60 percent of the time. This is very, very odd for YA, but I was never in any doubt that the Laura and Rose were the story’s focus. Getting to know the adults so well only added to the richness of the story. My only trouble with the characterization was the way these two feisty, capable girls ended up wimping out at the end—no amount of self-analysis will tell me whether that’s legitimate literary criticism or just me wanting a happy ending. Probably the latter, so take it with a grain of salt.
As you read, your brain will keep prodding you for metaphysical logic. You have to ignore your brain because there ain’t none, especially when All Is Revealed at the end of the second book. The time paradoxes alone could kill you. Up to you whether that’s a problem.  

A far more serious breach, in my view, is the fact that the Hames and the Tiebolds and the other original European settlers apparently happened upon a completely empty variant of New Zealand: No Maori or other indigenous people.  I’m surprised there wasn’t an outcry about this, as there certainly was when an American YA author did much the same thing right around the time these books came out. Political correctness aside, it seems to me that the presence of indigenous people would have enriched the book.

I’m ashamed to say that this didn’t occur to me until about halfway through, but now it’s making me sad. I wish a book with so many wonders in it could have done better.

(Dear FCC: These books were on the reading list for next week’s Children’s Literature New England symposium on Passages of Hope, intended to examine whether it’s possible in this day and age to write authentic stories that also offer hope. This’ll be an interesting discussion, FCC. Drop by if you have minute.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

September Book Review Club: THE BURIED GIANT

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@Barrie Summy

The Book Review Club is back and ready to read! Hope the summer was splendid but you got more rain than we did. No high hopes for the apple harvest.

On the other hand, a new crop of books! Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews. 

By Kazuo Ishiguro
Hardcover: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Paperback: Vintage International, 2016

King Arthur is dead and buried. The wars between Britons and Saxons have dwindled to an unsettled truce. And so, the elderly couple Axl and Beatrice feel it’s reasonably safe to travel from their settlement, a warren dug into a hill, to find their son in a distant village.

They don’t exactly remember details about their son. Why are they living apart? Do they really know the way to his village? Not sure.

Blame it on the mist—that’s what everyone calls the odd loss of memory that’s settled on England in recent years. Like a fog, it comes and goes—one minute you don’t remember anything older than a few months, but then the gloom lifts long enough for a dim memory to return. Only to fade again hours later.

Axl and Beatrice are devoted to each other, but they don’t exactly remember how or why they fell in love, or much about their years together. Is this a good thing, this living in the moment? Or are they missing the real beauty of their lives?

THE BURIED GIANT is flat-toned, written in amber. There are no sharp colors, no thrills or real moments of tension, just a vague sense of unease and a gradual awakening. Its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, is adept at characters who don’t reveal all—the Booker Prize-winning THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is one of his books. In this case, the characters’ secrets are hidden from themselves as well as from us.

It sounds like a complete bore, and yet I found this book hard to put down. The characters are just so dear—especially Axl, our primary narrator. His focus is on Beatrice, how to keep her safe and happy, how to deal with that worrying pain she has in her side. And yet we (and he) keep getting hints that he lived a bolder life at one time, a warrior and a trusted emissary.

He and Beatrice have plenty of adventures on their way to find their son. They meet Saxons, Britons, upright knights, bad monks, pixies, ogres, and eventually a dragon.  Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and trusted lieutenant, wanders in and out as a decrepit, befuddled relic of bygone glory. Merlin had his hand in things, long ago.

It’s all told in that flat tone. At one point a potentially thrilling scene even is told in retrospect, all danger over. This should be a buzz-kill but . . . then there are those mysteries. What IS the source of the mist? Who IS Axl?

What does memory do for us? What if we forgot we were at war?

This probably won’t be your book of the year—it’s a tad too muted for that. There’s a feeling that it never really digs down, just skims the surface of things. The mysteries are solved, but the forces behind them remain vague. Nevertheless, it’s a lovely read and will stay with you.

Autumnal, in fact.

(Dear FCC: This was a birthday present, suggested to my beloved by the wizards at Blue Hill Books. Nobody paid me to review it or even cares that I did. Autumnal indeed.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

June Book Review Club: SLADE HOUSE

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@Barrie Summy

It's spring even  in Maine now, and a slim book is just what you need: easy to carry in your beach satchel, quick to read in between bouts of gardening. I'm not entirely enthusiastic about this one, but if you've enjoyed earlier books by David Mitchell you might like it fine. 

The Book Review Club is taking July and August off. Click the icon above for more reviews, and see you in September!

by David Mitchell
Random House, 2015

A lesson to us all, that’s what SLADE HOUSE is. Up to now, I’ve occasionally pondered whether the absolute necessity for a character to be the agent of his own fate was just a kidlit/YA thing. If you were writing for adults, could you get away with a deus ex machina, medieval drama’s god-figure descending to solve everything?

In SLADE HOUSE, David Mitchell answers that question. No, you can’t.

Mitchell is the author of THE CLOUD ATLAS, which I haven’t read, and THE BONE CLOCKS, which I liked a lot. Most—if not all—of his novels take place in a universe that contains “atemporals,” immortals who jigger about with time and with us. There are bad guys, the vampiric Anchorites who suck our souls to stay alive, and there are good guys, the Horologists who try to save us. The books aren’t sequential (they couldn’t be, messing with time as they do) but familiar characters reappear. In SLADE HOUSE, there’s a reference to “bone clocks” (that would be us) and the deus ex machina is a Horologist called Marinus, known to us from the previous book.

There’s a lot to love about SLADE HOUSE, and Mitchell’s universe is intriguing as hell. (I may mean that literally.)  The central characters in this round are a set of twins who’ve become Anchorites. They inhabit a very cool London mansion called Slade House, and keep themselves and the house going by imbibing the soul of an “engifted” human every nine years. (I’m not sure what “engifted” means—psychic, maybe. The term may originate from THE CLOUD ATLAS.) Mitchell can be an entrancing writer, and he's having fun here, which is endearing. 

This is a slim volume with five sections, one for each soul under attack, set every nine years starting in 1979 and ending in 2015. (The first section apparently debuted on Mitchell's Twitter feed. Huh.) Four sections are told from the point of view of an imbibee, while one of the evil twins narrates the last one.

Therein lies the problem. The evil twins are just evil, not at all compelling as characters, and they're the ones we're visiting the most. The victims are more fun to hang out with, but we get to know them a-a-a-almost enough to care about them and then they’re gone and we’re off to the next case. Each victim appears once more as a vague, ghostly residue trying to warn a successor, but otherwise none of the humans takes any lasting action. It’s up to Marinus the immortal to swoop in at the end, out of nowhere except the previous book. The human reader closes this book feeling flat and cheated. At least I did.

It doesn’t help that I read this just after Salman Rushdie’s TWO YEARS, EIGHT MONTHS AND TWENTY-EIGHT DAYS, in which warring jinn bring their battles to earth with humans as either pawns or allies. The contrast was telling. We know the heroine jinnia very well, having followed her through the book. Her human allies are well known to us and instrumental in their own salvation.  It’s a masterful, soul-filling tale. SLADE HOUSE, taken by itself, is not.

Now, here’s the thing. In a multi-course meal, SLADE HOUSE may be intended only as a garnish. THE BONE CLOCKS, although it had its faults, was a far more substantial and satisfying experience, and I have every intention of reading THE CLOUD ATLAS to make sure I’m prepared for the future.  A few books from now, we may be sitting back, loosening our belts, and calling for a toothpick.

(Dear FCC: I bought this book for my beloved. It was either for Christmas or his birthday, which is exactly one month before Christmas and a total pain in the prat for the gift-giver. Do something about that, would you?)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


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@Barrie Summy

It's supposed to be spring, and for most of you it probably is. Here in Maine, the window shows us budding trees, we dance out the door, and we freeze in place. This is why they call it "climate change" rather than "global warming."

On the plus side, more wood stove time. Here's a lovely bit of escapism that would work just as well on a beach if you don't live in The Land the Sun Forgot. Yes, I'm whining.

Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews.

By Megan Whalen Turner
Greenwillow Books, 1995

Guilty secret: Every now and then, I google “Megan Whalen Turner Book Five,” grasping for news on the promised sequel to the four Queen’s Thief novels. So far, the series consists of THE THIEF, THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, THE KING OF ATTOLIA, and A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS, each better than the one before. Which is saying something, considering that THE THIEF won a Newbery honor.

The last book came out in 2010, and Turner has said there would be two more in the series. If that's not true, I will turn into a heap of disappointed dust on the floor.

Last time I guiltily googled, I was reminded that Turner’s first book actually was INSTEAD OF THREE WISHES, a collection of short stories. “Why haven’t I read these?” I muttered, scrambling for the “buy” button.

Why indeed.  Unlike the Queen’s Thief books, which are set in a fantasy realm, most of these stories are in my favorite sub-genre, fantasy set in the real world.  What's more, they're blessed with the dry, wry, understated sense of humor best served up when the supernatural meets the humdrum. Example: Having watched a Cinderella-esque coach-and-four appear and disappear in her front yard, a protagonist's mother says calmly, “It's a good thing we don't have many neighbors. They'd wonder.”

The stories don't have the literary heft of the novels, but lordy they're fun. My favorite, I think, is the title tale (quoted above), in which a high school student named Selene unwittingly earns the gratitude of an elf prince who grants her three wishes she doesn't really want. One after another, she rejects the coach, a palace, and a charming but dimwitted prince with matrimony on his mind, until the desperate elf turns up on the doorstep pretending to be a history professor who needs to rent a room. (Mom, a historian herself, finds it odd that he's never heard of the Battle of Hastings.)

The conundrum's solution is both neat and heart-warming.

In other stories,  a New Hampshire town withstands a leprechaun sighting and onslaught of tourists,  a kid goes back in time to rid a Viking settlement of its cockroaches, and a fledgling punk suffers nightmares in which he sees what other people think of him. Ghosts are addicted to reading. A young king masquerades as a baker.

My second-favorite story, the one whose complex texture most resembles Turner's novels, is “Aunt Charlotte and the NGA Portraits.”  An elderly aunt enthralls her niece with the tale of a girlhood summer on the North Carolina shore, when she helped a strange but beloved neighbor solve a series of art-related puzzles and challenges. I quibbled a bit with the storytelling aunt device—couldn't see why it was necessary. But the story itself was marvelous.

Elements of this collection took me back to the ironic, deliciously weird short stories that got me through my teen years, written around the turn of the last century by journalist H.H. Munro under the pen-name “Saki.” (If you've never read “The Open Window” or “Sredni Vashtar,” correct this gap in your education immediately.) (None of Turner's stories is as bloody as "Sredni Vashtar," I hasten to add.)

I would love to know if Turner ever read Saki. She has claimed Diana Wynne Jones as an inspiration, so that’s almost as good.

For those of us who are Turner-deprived, these stories do ease the ache.

Also, Ms. Turner, hurry up.

(Dear FCC: Do you not recognize the addiction here? Think I’d wait for someone to pay me or otherwise incite this review? In short, I bought this book and no one cares what I say about it.)