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.)