I had the great pleasure of knowing Dana while I was a student at Vermont College. She is a woman of many talents and a thought-provoking speaker. Her novel, Like Water on Stone, was a labor of love that started, I think, while she was at Vermont College and continued on after she'd completed the program. I cheered when I heard it had been acquired, not simply because a fellow VCFA'er had placed a story but because this book brings a rich form of diversity to not only kidlit but literature overall.
Basic Premise: It's 1914. Shahen dreams of moving to New York where part of his family has already immigrated. His father, initially, stands in his son's way. He loves their life in Armenia. And then the Ottoman empire, in decline, goes to war. Religion suddenly matters, and not in a good way. Much of Shahen's family, Christians, including his parents and older brothers, are murdered by troops. Shahen and two of his sisters flee across the mountains to safety and, eventually, a new life in America.
The story was inspired by Walrath's own family story of immigration.
There are a variety of interesting elements to take away from this piece. The most hard-hitting is that this is a story of genocide. How does a kidlit writer tackle such hard stuff and not overwhelm her reader? Walrath chose to write her story in verse, her reasoning being, the material is so graphic, so emotionally full, by painting with thinner strokes, it is possible to share and yet not overwhelm a younger audience. Not once did I ever feel words were missing, nor did I feel as if I couldn't keep reading. It's a masterful use of a writer's tool. In so doing, Walrath exposes her audience to the concept that genocide is, very unfortunately, a recurring theme in human history, and opens the story of for debate by leaving the reader wondering: why? Why do we as humans tend toward annihilation of others? It's a contemporary topic.
Further, the novel is told from alternating POVs. It was truly fascinating to both read and see POV change by changing poetic structure. It's yet another tool to add to the toolbox.
For other great reads, you don't even need to get out your galoshes, just spring over to Barrie Summy's website. Happy reading!
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Until recently, I'd never cursed an author, definitely not for making me care. It's what I want as a reader.
And then I read Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The deeper I got into the story, the more often I found myself making silent bargains with Flanagan to just lighten up, please. I'd still like his book.
But he didn't lighten up. He made me care and feel in ways I only ever have for my own characters.
And that's when the cursing began. I even shook my fist at one point. And yes, I cried. I'm not a book cryer. Movies, weddings, a particularly good episode of "Modern Family" and I'm shamelessly weeping, but not books. Not even The Fault in Our Stars. I think it's an occupational callous I've built up over the years. Or, I thought it was. Until Flanagan.
Basic plot: Dorrigo Evans is an Australian doctor who is taken prisoner during WW II by the Japanese and sent as a POW to help build the Death Railway through Siam and Burma. It's a story he recalls in his old age, unable to find love and remembering the one, forbidden love he gave up before leaving for war, his uncle's wife, Amy. In his own words, Evans says, "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else”.
Remorse is a powerful emotion. But if a whole story were solely about remorse and wallowing, I'd just as soon get up, make a cheese sandwich and abandon the story. Life is too short. While Flanagan's tale is full of remorse and regret, opportunities missed or not taken, it's also about those moments in life when a human being gets the chance to be more than they are, and - scared, unsure, but unwavering - takes it. It's the inseprarable interweaving of these and the connections they build that makes The Narrow Road into Deep North such an unforgettable read.
That and the amazing writing. Would that I could romance, cajole, sometimes even bully or beat words the way Flanagan does into sentences and thoughts with such pervasive effect.
If the cold, dreary, dark days of January have blanketed you, this is just the right read. Don't Call Me Ishmael is Bud, not Buddy hilarious and set in Australia, where, currently, it is summer! So pull up a chair and toast your toes on the warmth and humor of this story.
Basic plot: Ishmael Leseur, a Year Nine student (that's down under for ninth grader), suffers from ILS, Ishmael Leseur Syndrome, which is Ishmael's name for his particular brand of adolescent/early teeanage agony. It's made up of a "crawl in a hole" embarrassing story why he parents named him after one of literature's most renowned protagonists, a bully who teases him about said name, a girl whom he is crazy for but who doesn't know he exists, and a group of misfit friends who are constantly getting themselves into embarrassment squared messes.
I discovered this book in, of all things, German (although the author is from and story set in Australia, so no worries, you can easily get it in English). My husband comes from ye olde country and we've raised our daughters bi-lingually, which has meant a lot of audiobooks "auf Deutsch". I chose this title for its length. Shameful, I know, but it was six hours long instead of the meager two so many middle grade German audible books come in at. So there you have it, random parameters (barrage young ears with as much second language as possible) unearthed a humor goldmine.
I wish I could say I know how Bauer does it, but I don't, which is why I've gotten the other two books in this series to get behind his humor trick. He is spot on with adolescent funny. My daughters and I laugh out loud in the car on the way to school every morning. Me, maybe more. The agony of teenagerdom maybe hits a little too close to home for barrel laughs for them. Theirs is more the "somebody else is going through this?!?" ha-ha-whew.
So there you have it. Pick up a copy of Don't Call Me Ishmael and start 2015 off with a good laugh and an uproarious story. For more cheer in these bleak months, check out the reviews on Barrie Summy's website (and pray that groundhog doesn't see his shadow!)
In the spirit of the cold winter months' clamor for a good book to curl up with, I present Belzhar. I had the great pleasure of listening to Meg Wolitzer speak at BEA in May. She is an author of predominantly adult books who's tried her hand at YA and delivered a strong, new voice to enjoy.
Belzhar is the story of Jam who has basically given up on living after she loses her boyfriend. She stops functioning at school and becomes so depressed her parents and therapist send her to The Wooden Barn, a school for teens struggling with traumatic issues in Vermont. There, Jam is enrolled in a special English class that changes her life. Not only does she meet a new boy but also, at the same time, gets to communicate with the boy she's lost in a world unlike any other. Jam makes friends, rebuilds her life, but cannot move forward until she not only faces but relives the trauma that imploded her old life.
Woltizer's writing is strong, her characters both flawed and endearing, and her alternate reality within reality a great hook that entices the reader throughout the story.
There is an interesting trend, almost rule, within YA that the story is written in present tense. This is to make the reader feel closer to the events happening, and to mimic how very much teenagers are affected and live in the "now". It has made me wonder how exportable present tense storytelling is. I've used it in a picture book, just to try it out, to get a feel for the effect of tense. In a way, present tense makes even the past seem very present. It speeds up action and imbues what is happening with novelty, urgency and unpreditability. There's no telling how the story can end, especially if it is in first person POV. I just ran across a chapter of present tense in an adult novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Man Booker Winner 2014). The story up until that moment had been told in simple past, then suddenly, present tense appears. It was a jarring, blast of air that pulled me out of the observer's position and into the narrative. I straightened and listened more closely. This had to be important. What a difference a tense can make.
For more great books to balance out the hustle and bustle of the end of the year, check out Barrie Summy's site. Happy reading and a wonderful new year!
I am no longer a closet-case sci-fi fan. This is my third sci-fi review this year. I think it's time to face facts. I am a sci-fi junkie!
I looked forward to reading Ancillary Justice when I'd seen it won the Hugo and Nebula awards. I cut my sci-fi teeth on the likes of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Frank Herbert's Dune in between installments of Little House on the Prairie. That is the seventies in a nutshell. And I figured, if Leckie could beat Andy Weir's The Martian, which I love, in the awards category, I was about to fall in love again.
Let's just say Ancillary Justice and I got off to a rocky start. It was not love at first sight. In fact, the novel frustrated me (incidentally, it was the same when I first met my husband).
Basic plot - a space ship decides to take revenge on the leader of the culture that made - and ultimately attempts to destroy - it (Ancillary Justice, not my marriage; it's still happily intact).
It's fascinating stuff. AI taken to a whole new level. However, the AI can't decipher female from male and so refers to everyone as "she". Sometimes, gender is specified, but then the ship reverts to calling said characters "she". For me, it made connecting with characters really hard. And that made me wonder, why does gender matters in story? Or rather, does gender matter in story? Should it matter? What does Leckie gain by making her story more or less gender neutral?
I haven't finished figuring all of this out, but I have come to the conclusion that for the story, by making everyone gender neutral, characters become sentient beings. That's it. They have flaws and quirks, but in remaining gender neutral, they never became much deeper than that. This may, in part, have to do with the boundaries of my hermeneutics. I live in a world in which, for the most part, the gender of any person I interact with, is clear. With that comes mounds of unspoken data. Without that, I have to rethink my world. That is what Leckie forced me, as a reader, to do in her novel. I had to see it through a different lens, a new lens, one I haven't completely finished sanding down yet, and won't, without further interaction.
The absence of gender imploded my hermeneutic structure of interpretation. It made me feel uneasy. And it's kept me feeling uneasy. And thinking. In other words, it's genius.
I used to say I was a closet case trekkie, but this is my second post about a story with a scifi bent in less than a year. I think I've trekked out of the closet...in a Dr. Who sort of way. But that's another story.
Maggot Moon, truth be told, is less science fiction than alternate reality (along the lines of Vaterland). Basic premise - England (or something very near it) has been taken over by an fascist authoritarian regime that wants to put a man on the moon to prove its prowess to the rest of the world. Snag - the moon is too radioactive. Any possible human visitors would fry in orbit. It's a minor technicality for the Motherland. One easily solved with good old-fashioned smoke, mirrors, and Egyptian brutality. However, they don't count on Standish Treadwell (oh, the symbolism in that name!) to stand in their way.
I enjoyed Gardner's mash of alternate reality, conspiracy theories that the United States' moon landing was a hoax, and flawed, painfully human main character. She does an excellent job of building foreboding, of making sure the reader knows this cannot end well without, however, knowing how the story will end. Writing genius.
The chapters were also amazingly short, reminiscent of Kevin Henke's Olive's Ocean. The effect was, for me, choppy. However, both author and main character are dyslexic, and that much white space can be a godsend to a struggling reader. So, my discomfort may actually be a struggling reader's greatest comfort.
The additional illustrations throughout the book of the rat and fly give visual reinforcement to the decadence inherent in the world in which Standish is caught.
The issue that's kept me mulling is Standish's character and his development. I like Standish. He's real. He has real problems. He doesn't seem to have any real personality flaws, however. Yes, Standish has all of these problems - parents have disappeared, dyslexia,
different eye colors, outcast of society, grandfather who's been
reeducated, evil, brutish teachers - but they aren't personality flaws per se. He struggles with them because the world around him sees them as issues that make him less of a person. He is basically the good guy fascist systems destroy, not the conflicted protagonist whose personality shortcomings lead to destruction and, out of that, growth, such as Sara Louise in Paterson's Jacob I Have Loved.
Ah, characters. They come in all shapes and sizes!
I'm stretching ye olde reviewing skills again with my first review after the summer siesta of the Book Review Club. Fortunately, Jane Kurtz makes my work so much easier. Anna was Here was a fun, entertaining, timeless story. Dare I say, it's a meat and potatoes book cloaked in chocolate pudding. They don't get any better than that!
Plot synopsis: Anna, daughter of a minister and university professor, must move to Kansas when her father accepts a temporary post as pastor to an ailing church in a small town. Catch: the small town is filled with relatives and uneasy family history.
This story is as much about mending broken ties in a community and family as it is about the change and discomfort that comes from a big move and new start. What struck me is how evenly balanced this story is. All of the parts - character, plot, setting - work in harmony. None is louder than the others. They each take center stage for appropriate but not prolonged solos.
While there is a religious element to this story, Kurtz does an
excellent job of, again, balancing. Religion doesn't take over. The
story doesn't become about religion, or faith, or belief, or what one
person believes in lieu of another. Rather, it remains another story
element, nicely blended, fulfilling the role Kurtz sets out for it,
which is, interestingly, both dividing and unifying.
All of that got me to thinking about voice. I've heard the term described as so many different things, not the least of which is the tone of a piece, or an author's style. Anna was Here made me rethink those. After all, they already have their own iconic terminology. But voice is still missing its fundamental definition (at least for me, it was). So I came up with my own: voice is the result of a writer's blend of style, tone, character, setting, plot, and the various other parts of story. In other words, voice isn't any one thing. It's what is created when all of the parts are blended and create something greater than the sum of those parts = voice.
I'm pretty sure I haven't reinvented the definitional wheel on voice, but it finally makes sense to me. Thanks Jane Kurtz!
I review books that surprise me, jar me, make me think. They are books I've bought, borrowed from the library, or been given as a gift. I do accept ARCs, but will only review a book if it moves me. It's about the writing. If I'm moved, I pass it on in a review.