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Review: Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh

Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh by Anna Beer My rating: 4 of 5 stars Disclaimer: I won an ARC ...

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: The Overstory

The Overstory The Overstory by Richard Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: W. W. Norton sent me a complimentary copy. Additionally, if Norton has a fan girl group, I’m a founding member. I have been a fan of this publisher since college where I used their excellent critical editions.

If you are going to read one book this year, it should be The Overstory by Richard Powers.

If you are going to read one book in your lifetime, it should be The Overstory by Richard Powers.

At first glance, the novel seems to be a series of stories about a group of people who have little in common. There are a few geniuses, an artist, an at odds college student, a vet, a coder among others. There are also the trees that branch throughout the story.

The characters do eventually connect with each, they are branched together like the roots of the trees they love.

That’s point really, the trees and our connection to them. One of the most beautiful chapters in the book concerns Patricia and her discovery about trees. And it’s true. All of what happens and all the science about trees in the book is true.

Because the central characters are so varied in backgrounds, Powers is able to illustrate, to showcase, why many myths and stories center around trees. Its not the just World Tree from mythology, but also in the Grimms’ version of Cinderella where a tree on the dead mother’s grave gives the girl her dresses and shoes. There is a reason why trees are central, and The Overstory reminds us of why, of why trees are so important to everything- not just forest life, but coding and math and psychology. You don’t always get the connection but words like branch and truth come from a group that is far older than we acknowledge.

The book is about trees and about humanity.

It deserves all the stars.

It will make you look at trees and people in different ways.

There are beautiful sentences like "But people - some fathers- are written over by trees" (119) and "For the first time, she realizes that being alone is a contradiction in terms. Even in a body's most private moments, something else joins in" (158). Or "The freedom to be equal to the terrors of the day" (421). Or "That's life; the dead keep the living alive" (423)

Seriously, read this book. Love this book. Gift this book.

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Review: The White Darkness

The White Darkness The White Darkness by David Grann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

You might not recognize Henry Worsley’s name, but you mostly likely have heard the story. At the end of 2015-the beginning of 2016, he attempted to cross Antarctica alone, but sicken, was airlifted, and, sadly, died while doctors while trying to save his life. His quest, done in part as a fundraiser, was followed by the media and classrooms. He received support from the royal family. If you are like me, you were impressed by the drive and the attempt, but also wondering why.

David Grann’s White Darkness does a good job at answering a question whose best answer till now has been “because it’s there”.

Grann is perhaps the best teller of true stories working right now. This short book showcases his shorter work (the story appeared in The New Yorker), and proves that his short profiles can be just as riveting.

As Grann notes, Worsley was obsessed with Shackleton an artic explorer who is better know for his failures where people didn’t starve to death than anything else. Unlike Amundsen who made it or Scott who died the stiff upper lip way, Shackleton got his people home. Worsley’s obsession seems in part because of a family connection (his ancestor Frank worked with Shackleton). In fact, prior to his solo attempt, Worsley had done a three-person hike with Will Gow (a descendent of Shackleton) and Henry Adams (a grandson of Jameson Boyd). Worsley’s obsession too does seem to be a case of hero-worship, he makes on interesting pilgrimage to Shackleton’s grave.

Grann presents a quick overview of Worsley’s life, giving the reader a sense of who was lost, and not just a vague or abstract tragedy. While Grann never says, this is why, he does a great job of allowing the reader to get a sense of the drive and determination that fueled Worsley’s quest, but also to see the family that supported him.

The long essay is supplemented by photos, and the tone itself is one of remembrance, but more peaceful or comprehensive than an obituary.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: Nirliit

Nirliit Nirliit by Juliana Léveillé-Trudel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Montreal, near McGill University there is a wonderful store called Paragraphe. Every time I am in Montreal, I make sure I stop by and I usually drop around 70 bucks. I’m careful. I make sure I pick up either autographed books or books that are not easily available in the US. This book was one of the ones I picked up this year.

Nirliit was originally written in French (the author lives in Montreal), and it should be noted that the translator is Anita Anand. She deserves praise as way for the book is lyrical. For instance, in describing the town that the she is going to, the unnamed speaker says, “Purvinituq is a plain girl with magnificent eyes that you only discover if you are paying attention.” (16). And in describing the Inuit language, the phrase “rugged poetry” is used”.

The author’s bio at the back of the book tells the reader that Léveillé-Trudel not only works in the performing arts but also taught in the Nunavil region; therefore, it is hard not to see this novel as drawing from life experience and, considering it is two monologues, as something that could be easily adapted to a show along the lines of Anna Deverne Smith.

The speaker is addressing a friend who is missing, who is gone in the first monologue and an unnamed listener in the second. There is an intervening few years between the two monologues, but the settings and characters are the same.

On one hand, the story hits all the issues that people associate with native/first nations/indigenous communities – drinking, violence, spousal abuse. There is a bleakness to the story. You will cry when reading this.

And yet.

And yet, the story is more than that. It is more than the bleakness.

Part of the book examines solutions, mostly those proposed by the government, and the impact that those so-called solutions have those they effect. There is also the examination of the impact of white people and other societies on Native culture and life, as well as how whites view them, why there is such resentment. It is an examination of what happens long after the culture clash and outrages committed one culture by another.

Because the story is told from an outsider’s point of view, of a woman trapped, to a degree, between the culture she is and the culture she serves. Our narrator is charmed and repealed and confused. Caught between two worlds and even two political philosophies, and I’m not talking about her views on caribou meat. But the book is also about common humanity because while the source of the problems is different, there is also an under lying humanity between peoples that should be noted and embraced.

I cannot do this book justice in any review. I just can’t. The speaker of the book says, “Beauty in the form of a punch to the gut: only the tundra has this, an immense shattering landscape, so lonely with almost no one to appreciate it”. In many ways, those words are an accurate description of this book. This lovely, heart-breaking book.

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Review: The Goblin Companion: A Field Guide to Goblins

The Goblin Companion: A Field Guide to Goblins The Goblin Companion: A Field Guide to Goblins by Brian Froud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Listen! Do you hear that? It's coming from above. It sounds like something squawking, "Damm you gravity!"

Quick! Duck! Hit the decks!

The Amom Pherriginus didn't hit you, did it? Good. It's a type of bird that doesn't have feathers, so it glues feathers on. Sometimes, though, its wings get stuck together. You know how it is with Crazy Glue.

It's really heavy. See that hole?

Froud and Jones' guide to goblins is a very handy resource. You learn a great many thing about goblins. A list, by no means complete or even accurate:

1. Tallow Goblins do mean things to thier grannies.

2. Never, ever try to steal a Tallow Goblins purse.

3. Loch Ness does exist.

4. Ladies, watch out for detachable members (yes, those types of members! There was even a picture. You would think it would hurt.)

5. Never hear the story of Luerk.

6. Knitting can be fatal.

7. Twark's are good kissers, though why you would want to kiss one is beyond me.

8. You can tame worms.

9. Beware of Agnes.

10. The Sacred Bone of Whence

11. Goblins have a law aganist sex:
(a) They don't follow it

(b) They smell during the act. I mean really smell.

As well as many other useful facts that I forgot because I was laughing too hard.

The only drawback to the book, if drawback it be, is that you find yourself humming David Bowie music inbetween laugh riots. (Make sure you go the WC before reading. Consider yourself warned!)

You remind of the babe.
What babe?
The babe with the power.
What power?
The power of voodoo.
Who do?
You do.
Do what?
Remind me of the babe.

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

Review: Trail of Lightning

Trail of Lightning Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One cannot emphasize how important this book is in terms of representation in dystopian/urban fantasy literature. It is one the few UF novels set in America I’ve read where all the characters are poc. L. A. Banks’ work is the only other work that springs readily to mind. It is the only one I’ve read where the characters are all Native American/Indigenous/First Peoples.

I am quite well aware that my perspective is limited, that there are books I am either forgetting or don’t know about. Please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments. Also note, I am taking about characters, not authors. This book also had a big PR push as well.

What is more, Roanhorse’s characters are Diné in all the authentic ways. Language and terms are used in ways that a native speaker would use them. Don’t worry, meaning is revealed but it is down in a way that feels natural as opposed to an info dump. There are references to water deliveries as well as the classism(?) that exists between city and non-city dwellers (urban vs. rez). What is more important is that race is not used as a shortcut for a tragic past or romantic trauma (i.e. Anita Blake who really only brings up being half Hispanic when explaining why a boyfriend’s mother didn’t like her, and then that’s it). There is dealing with racism and stereotypes.

This also means that this book carries quite a bit on its metaphorical shoulders, fairly or unfairly.

Thankfully, it carries the unfair load quite well.

It’s true and fair to say that Maggie, the heroine, suffers from the problems that exist in all too many UF and dystopian novels of late. She has a tragic past, she doesn’t trust people (but mostly men), she is shut off, she isn’t “girly”, and she is special in terms of power. She also doesn’t think that she is good looking (though to be fair, not every man in the book lusts after her, so this doesn’t annoy me at all in this book). She also is the only woman of name for over 150 pages of the book. She is the only woman of power until the last quarter of book, and the other women or girls are either victims, non-fighters, or get hurt. There is a slight shift in this at the end that I loved (and the book does technically pass the Bechdel test), but overall, outside of race, Maggie is very much like every other UF heroine you can think of.

This doesn’t mean that she is a bad character or unbelievable. Roanhorse is not the only author who makes such a standard character work either (think Armstrong’s Elena or Vaughn’s Kitty) and like those other UF/dystopia series that stand out, Roanhorse expands on the standard.

It is also possible that we are to see the woman victims as symbolical of the cold hard fact that Native American women are most at risk for rape, sexual assault, and murder (domestic violence is 10 times higher, 1 in 3 Native American women are raped, Native American women are murder at least 10 times the national average in some places. Check out Indianlaw.org among other websites). I think this symbolical view is especially true with the opening sequence of the book, considering the lack of response from society and government to that fact.

The book works for a few seemingly simple reasons. The first is that the world building is absolutely wonderfully down. Not only does Roanhorse create a believable world, references are made to today’s events (such as Trump’s wall). Roanhorse’s writing carries you there. The use of Native American belief and folklore is well done. The book is not overcrowded with an overpopulation of magical creatures and various vampires and weres (honesty, I really want a book about a were slug. I swear that is the only were we haven’t seen yet). There are no vampire politics (thank god). The use of clan powers is wonderful and brilliant. What I particularly enjoyed was Maggie’s relationship to her own powers. The descriptions are vivid and the characters, in particular Maggie and Kai, totally believable.

More importantly, as other reviewers have pointed out, this is one of the few fantasy novels where a tragic heroine actually heals. In part, this is because of Kai, a medicine man (and something a bit more that isn’t that big of a reveal. I have theories about book 2 as well), but also because Maggie herself wants to heal. That’s why you root for her. She doesn’t want to be the biggest bad ass. She wants to be the best Maggie, or at least a whole Maggie or better Maggie that she can be (Maggie’s views and relationship to her clan powers is also a factor here. Nicely done too). Very few authors in UF have their heroines actually heal or learn. There might be lip service to the idea in some UF fiction, but you never really see it. Again, Armstrong’s Elena and Vaughn’s Kitty are two characters who break this trend, and we see them healing. I enjoy and love both Women of the Otherworld and the Kitty Books, but Roanhorse does the emotional and mentally healing much better. She truly does. We know that Maggie has healed not simply by how she opens herself up to Kai, but also though little descriptive touches. It is these touches that make it more realistic.

Kai also gets a mention for not being the abusive douche bag that we are suppose to find romantic. He is as just a real character as Maggie, with his own wants, needs, fears, and problems. The relationship that develops between the two does not feel forced and rings true. He also is a balance for the view of “girly” that Maggie has. To often in books, the central heroine is seen as better than the other women because she does not like hair and make-up. Maggie doesn’t like a certain hairstyle it is true, but her objection has to do with the practicality of the style. Kai and a few other characters not only balance Maggie’s dismissal of looks and presentation but challenge her view. Additionally, even though Maggie is the heroine, she needs the other characters to succeed. This isn’t super woman saves everyone type of heroine.

It’s true it is not a perfect book. But it is a damn fine debut. Can’t wait for the second installment.

Highly recommended.

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