Wednesday, April 4, 2018

April Book Review Club: TESS OF THE ROAD

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@Barrie Summy

It's raining! The snow's washing away!

That's all I've got in my head right now. Sorry.

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By Rachel Hartman
Random House Books for Young Readers, 2018

Three years ago on this very blog, I turned myself into a pretzel trying to convey my delight in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina duology, a pair of fantasies about a richly multicultural human/dragon society and an inspired young woman breaking free from convention.

Hartman’s at it again in TESS OF THE ROAD, set in the same world as the earlier books, and once again we’re all going nuts. (Four starred reviews!) Yet again the first book of a duology, TESS gives us another young woman held down by the stultifying conventions of Goredd, the most hidebound of nations. We watch her break free first physically, then psychologically and spiritually, on a road trip across borders and prejudices. Yet again, we are entranced.

I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the Seraphina books, although the events in them do predate this story and there might be some broader context missing. It’s fun recognizing old friends in the new book, but I suspect it would be just as much fun the other way around.

Tess is Seraphina’s younger stepsister, one of a pair of twins born to Seraphina’s father and a horrendous mother, intractably religious, snobby, and bigoted. The “bigoted” part mostly has to do with dragons, mathematically-minded philosophers who are able to assume a human form and co-exist uncomfortably with humans. In the first duology, the humans and dragons fell into a war, but that’s all over now.

Seventeen-year-old Tess is naturally rebellious, and has destroyed her social chances by losing her virginity (in what is essentially a date-rape) and becoming pregnant. Back home after giving birth, she becomes handmaiden to her lovely twin sister, hoping to win her a splendid court marriage that will save the family bacon. When the wedding day arrives she gets drunk and punches her new brother-in-law, so now she’s destined for the convent.

Instead, prodded by the unconventional Seraphina, she finds herself dressing as a boy and taking off down the road, seeking oblivion. She runs across her childhood friend Pathka, a small, intelligent, spiritually-minded dragon called a quigutl, whose race is particularly adept at inventing and fabricating technology in an otherwise medieval land. She joins his quest, searching for a giant, mythical serpent sacred to his race, keeping body and soul together through theft, cons, and manual labor.

Tess is a wonderful, difficult character, mired in self-hatred, always hearing her mother’s toxic, disapproving voice in her head. Watching her slow healing and release is a privilege and a triumph. Pathka is another marvel: tortured, loyal, irascible, brilliant. Maybe not such a great parent. (We meet his kid.)

This book doesn’t have the broad political sweep of the Seraphina books, although it looks like the second book might. Seraphina had a personal quest, but also she was trying to save the world. I missed the saarantrai, the exotic, conflicted dragons in human form, pursuing mathematical order despite the perplexities of human emotions. But Tess and Pathka’s quest, and what they found at the end of it, more than made up for any loss.

Marvelous, marvelous book.

(Dear FCC: I bought this book with my own money, because how could I not? Nobody cares if I review it. Hey . . . how about that Sinclair Broadcast Group? Isn’t monopoly supposed to be a bad thing?)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

March Book Review Club--BORN A CRIME

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@Barrie Summy

Hello. It's supposed to be almost spring but Maine has a nor'easter bearing down on us that could give us 18 inches of snow. I think the storm will have wreaked havoc for much of the East, kinda like the one we had a few days ago. Feel like putting your sense of grievance in perspective, and laughing your head off at the same time? Read on. 

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By Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau, 2016

In 1984, when South Africa’s apartheid regime was in full clamp-down, a spirited young Xhosa woman called Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah decided she wanted to have a baby with the guy down the hall, a Swiss/German named Robert. This was a crime that could send both of them to prison and their baby to an orphanage. She went ahead and did it anyway.

The baby turned out to be comedian Trevor Noah, now the anchor of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. He opens his memoir with a reproduction of the 1927 Immorality Act, which made “carnal intercourse” illegal between a European and a “native.” 

Later, he describes walking down the street with his mother at age six, his father across the street pretending he didn’t know them. Because he was light-skinned, his mother had to pretend she was his nursemaid when they were out in public.

There were perks, though. When Trevor and his mom were staying in Soweto with her mother, Trevor did something “naughty” (a big word in his life) for which his cousins were punished but he was not. “I don’t know how to hit a white child,” his grandmother explained.

He never fit in anywhere: at school with the white kids or even with the “colored” kids (Indian and other nonwhite, non-black races) who looked most like him.  

Noah’s remarkable mother helped him turn his oddity into an advantage. She made him speak English—the key to getting ahead in South Africa—but also Xhosa and Zulu and Sotho and Tswana and Afrikaans. Noah tended to walk on the wild side throughout his youth—“naughty” was putting it mildly—but if he was about to get beat up, he could disarm his attacker by unexpectedly speaking his language.

“I became a chameleon” he writes. “My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”

If you like your memoirs linear, this one will drive you nuts. It’s a collection of stories, jumping back and forth in time, about the funny, harrowing, weird, horrifying experience of growing up in South Africa and doing it as Trevor Noah. The writing is wonderful, as you’d expect, and Noah can’t help being funny, or at least wry, even when he’s telling you about the time his mom almost died. It’s a total page-turner.

The day five-year-old Trevor decided to avoid the rain-soaked outhouse and do his business on a newspaper in the kitchen—leading his female relatives to think the house is demon-infested—is comedic gold.

There’s anger under the comedy—how could there not be? And you’re always off balance, reading this book. Because it jumps around in time, you’re always stepping back and thinking, “Okay, so this was when they lived in that suburb, right?” That’s actually a good thing—this was not a childhood in which anyone should get comfy.

But possibly the weirdest thing about BORN A CRIME is the detachment of the author. We see him beaten, jailed, humiliated, and also triumphant, but none of it ever hits you in the heart and lungs. It’s entertaining as all get out, but you’re in no danger of weeping.

If you were going to survive this life and become Trevor Noah, I guess you’d have to be well armored.

(Dear FCC: I got this for my beloved for Christmas, or maybe his birthday, can’t remember which. They’re close together, which I believe I’ve told you before can be a real pain in the prat. I don’t recall getting any sympathy from you, though. )

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

January Book Review Club--GLASS HOUSES

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@Barrie Summy

Happy New Year! Big storm coming here in the East, and more grueling temperatures. (On the other hand, my friend Lilly in Australia is sitting in 122 degrees F. Count your blessings.)

Either way, time to hunker down with a good book. Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews!

By Louise Penny
St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur, 2017

A bitterly cold week between Christmas and New Year’s. A political fray you’re loathe to re-enter. A writing deadline, but you can’t write ALL day, can you?

This is the perfect situation for a visit to Three Pines, the mythical Québec village Louise Penny created twelve years and twelve books ago. Penny’s a master at creating characters, and Three Pines is one of them. Armand Gamache, now the chief superintendent of the Sûréte du Québec, is another. Nothing heals the soul like spending time with them.

In GLASS HOUSES, which came out just too late for my August birthday but in plenty of time for Christmas, Penny is at her best. I’m going to re-read this book as a primer in building suspense. The writers among us will be not even slightly surprised to know that Penny wrote it during and after her ailing husband’s final illness. She was in touch with every nerve ending in the universe, and it shows.

Three Pines is a little like Cabot Cove in the late, appalling television series “Murder, She Wrote.” (Except for the horrendous Maine accents and the ocean on the wrong side, but I digress.) The crime rate per capita is about two-to-one. If a villager isn’t buying the farm, some beleaguered somebody from away manages to stumble there before croaking. Somehow this never seems odd.

This is the thirteenth time Supt. Gamache, an accomplished, urbane, seemingly gentle man who in recent books keeps trying to retire, has followed the murders to Three Pines. At this point, he and his estimable wife, Reine-Marie, have actually moved there, looking for peace and quiet they never seem to get. They are part of the village’s fabric, along with a famous artist, a bookstore owner, a baker, a male couple who run a bistro and B&B, and a wizened, evil-tongued poet (also famous, to those with taste) who has a duck under her arm and the vocabulary of a drunken sailor. Everybody cooks well—Penny loves describing food that makes you watch the clock for dinner—and they know how to make one another comfortable even when they’re at each others’ throats.

The books are anything but comfy. Penny does not hesitate to kill or maim people you’ve come to like—you can’t trust her not to break your heart, which of course makes the suspense unbearable. She’s equally unprincipled with her characters’ psyches—there isn’t a person in Three Pines, in Gamache’s family, or among his close colleagues who isn’t deeply scarred by personal disaster.  

GLASS HOUSES makes profligate use of those scars. It’s impossible to say much about the plot without spoiling the fun: The book starts with Gamache as witness for the prosecution in a murder trial with a mysteriously unidentified defendant and a prosecutor working hard to discredit his own star witness.  Over time, we learn that Gamache is risking his family, his village, his reputation, and possibly his freedom for a higher end. He’s morally wrong in just about every way—upsetting, because until now he’s been your moral compass. There are physical dangers, psychic horrors, a ticking clock, and a black-cloaked figure standing still and silent on the Three Pines green, apparently there for vengeance. I tell you, this tale’s got it all.

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? I promise you it isn’t. And if you want a master course in character, setting, and suspense, this is your book.

(Dear FCC: I got GLASS HOUSES for Christmas. I’d suggest you read it, but Three Pines is close to the Vermont border and I think you might be insulted by the sly references to U.S. politics. These include a warning about the vigilance required to prevent a government from turning fascist. There’s nothing about this book that isn’t chilling.)