Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

I haven’t even finished this book, but I want to talk about it now.

I just read page 189, and it made me want to stand up in my living room and shout “Yes!” to Vincent the cat who's sleeping on the sofa.

The book’s hero, Arnold Spirit, is getting ready to go into a basketball game where he must guard his former best friend, now an enemy, for the entire night.

“You can do it,” says the coach.

“I can do it,” says Arnold Spirit.

I don’t know if he does or doesn’t win the game, don’t know if his enemy gives him another concussion and sends him back to the hospital in an ambulance, as he did in their last encounter.

But I can say this: Arnold is a warrior, and his words go right into my heart:

“I can do it.”

Born with multiple birth defects, including hydrocephalus that makes Arnold’s head unnaturally large and vulnerable (he gets called “Orbit” and “Pumpkin boy” by bullies), he's fifteen years old and has a stutter, bad eyes, huge feet, zits, and alcoholic parents. Arnold lives every teenager’s nightmare of being different, an outsider. Moreover, his reservation’s a bleak and hopeless place, white kids hate him just because he’s an Indian, and his "Rez" has such a terrible school that the textbooks are thirty years old.

Arnold has three things going for him: he draws cartoons beautifully, and they help him connect with the world when his stuttering speech shuts him out; his parents, flawed and defeated as they are, love and listen to him, and have hope for him if not for themselves; and he’s very smart—the smartest kid in his awful school.

And being a warrior, Arnold takes a kind teacher’s advice and changes schools. “You’ve got to,” says his teacher.

When he tells his family he’s going to attend the new white kids’ school off the Rez , it’s Arnold’s wise grandmother who first calls him a warrior.

“It was the best thing she could have told me,” he says.

Arnold is more alone than most teenagers can imagine: he’s bullied and shunned at his new school and hated by his former best friend; he’s ostracized by even the grownups on the Rez for going to a white school—they call him an “Apple,” meaning red on the outside but white on the inside.

But Arnold has a warrior’s courage, and he goes up to people who have been cruel to him and he says bluntly, “Look, we have things in common. I want to be friends with you.”

The book’s only 230 pages long, but it’s packed with powerful life lessons for any teenager who wants to know how to fit in, how to be accepted in spite of his flaws and weaknesses.

I wish I’d had this book back when I was in ninth grade and hating my ugly hair and my clumsiness in gym class. I wish I’d had this book when I messed up in an art workshop and got taken to task by the scholarship chairman.

But, all these years later, I can still cheer for and learn from Arnold, who has a stutter and bad eyes, and who is showing me how to be a warrior.

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a National Book Award winner, was published by Little-Brown in 2007.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books are classics, but they're also out of print and out of fashion. I'd never read them, but recently I decided it was time to get my hands on the first book and try it.

Swords & Deviltry is really a collection of shorts: one novella about Fafhrd's origins, a short story about the Gray Mouser's origins, and a short story about how the two characters met. Because I knew that Terry Pratchett's earliest Discworld books are partly inspired by the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books (I kept recognizing bits of Lankhmar as having been appropriated into Ankh-Morpork, and every time it delighted me), I expected Swords & Deviltry to be light and fun. It is fun, but it's surprisingly dark too.

Most of the darkness is internal--subtle, even, which is surprising in a book that uses the word 'thews'*. Swords & Deviltry is a sort of parody of crappy swords & sorcery books of the 1960s, sort of a "stand back, this is how swords & sorcery should be." The characterizations are deft, the stories clever and interesting.

I can see why the books are neglected now, though. The trappings of oldschool swords & sorcery--the purposely archaic language in particular--are long out of style. Like me recognizing Ankh-Morpork in Lankhmar and not the other way round, most readers today just don't have the reading background to catch Leiber's sly nods to swords & sorcery tropes.

But I enjoyed the book a lot. I'm also really glad I had the foresight to toss the second book in the series into my cart when I ordered the first one.

*Actually, I don't think the word 'thews' is actually in this book, but it would have fit in perfectly well.

[Additional note: my 1970 paperback edition of the book spells Leiber's name "Lieber" on the cover. Apparently it's spelled Leiber. I think I'd be a bit pissed if someone spelled my name wrong on the cover of my own book.]

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sabre, the Horse from the Sea by Kathleen Herald

I'm at 20,500 words on my NaNoWriMo novel, just barely ahead of where I should be. Therefore, I offer you a review of another book that I've read many times.

My copy of Kathleen Herald's Sabre, the Horse from the Sea was published in 1963 (reprinted from its original 1947 publication date) by Acorn Books, an imprint of Macmillan, although I'm pretty sure Acorn Books is no more. Five seconds on Google did not enlighten me. Fifteen seconds on Google, though, taught me--to my shock and delight--that Kathleen Herald is the same writer as K.M. Peyton, whose book Who, Sir? Me, Sir? is also one of my favorite horse stories ever.

In fact, I'm so shocked and delighted that I don't know if I can do justice to this review without devolving into fangirl squee and rushing off to see how many of Herald/Peyton's books are still in print so I can order them. Sabre is long out of print, unfortunately, but used copies are available.

Sabre is set in Britain during WWII. Twelve-year-old Liza Greenway is sent from London to live with her aunt and uncle in the country, but she's miserable there. Then she finds a gray Thoroughbred stallion wandering along the edge of the ocean; she captures him and takes him to a local farm until the owners can be found.

Except that Liza wants to keep the horse for herself. As the months pass and the owners don't show, Liza starts to think of the horse as hers. She names him Sabre and teaches herself to ride, and when the owners do finally show up, Liza misleads them into thinking the horse ran off ages ago.

That's just the set-up. The plot takes many surprising twists and is a completely satisfying story just on that level. What I love, though, is the way Liza grows from a sullen, unhappy twelve-year-old to a quietly happy, more open teenager over the course of the book. The change is subtle, elegantly written, and believable. Liza feels like a real person; the other characters all feel like real people too. Best of all, the horse Sabre (and later the filly Scimitar) behave like real horses.

The writing is spare, understated, and very British. It's not a book about WWII--that's just the backdrop--but it taught me more about life in Britain during the war than any other book I've read or any movie I've ever seen. And the race at the end of the first part of the book was a huge influence on my writing when I was a kid. It taught me all I know about action verbs. That Herald/Peyton wrote this book when she was eighteen floors me--I hadn't known that until today. No wonder I love what few of her later books I've been able to find.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Nightwalker by Jocelynn Drake

"Here, honey, you left your skank book in the kitchen." The book landed on my desk: crumpled, dismissed, even insulted if that's possible for a book. Skank? Drake's hero Mira isn't a skank! She's the baddest mofo who ever, ever hit the town. In fact, let's together run down the list of just how unspeakably incredible she is.

To start with, she's got a great body: the author goes to great pains to describe her slim frame, red hair, above-average height, revealing black leather clothing and rampant sexuality.

Then there's the vampire part--but not just any vampire but a six hundred year old vampire, which makes her one of the oldest left around.

But, hmmm... there's still something missing. Too many vampires: she's not special enough yet. So she also gets an extra power: she's a natural pyromancer, because fire is good. Are we getting the idea yet?

How about making her fantastically fast and strong: we can't get out of chapter three before she's thrown down with the toughest werewolf anywhere and tried very hard not to break him like a toothpick. Oh, and she's regenerative: at some point she gets her throat torn out, but that's okay because if she can just get a little sleep she'll be fine in the morning.

Oh, and she's fabulously wealthy of course, forgot to mention that: private jet, personal bodyguards (with sex thrown in, naturally), recognition as a high roller in all the clubs.

And did I mention that she has to wear red-tinted sunglasses (vampire, only around at night, remember) because her eyes glow red sometimes? Only the really tough characters get glowing red eyes.

Is anyone else following along in the Mary Sue checklist?

Honestly I'm sure there's a plot in here somewhere, and I suppose the review should probably touch on it--but why bother? It's clear where the author's priorities are, and it's not the storyline. Drake's self-lust for her own character drowns out any possible story with an indecipherably bad signal-to-noise ratio.

I think I'll let the skank-book just sit there for a while; I'm not sure my stomach is up to handling the sequel.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Maybe November was a bad time to start a book review blog. The Skunk Cat reviewers are deep in NaNoWriMo-land and don't have a lot of free time for reading. To keep things going until December, I'll be posting the occasional review of older books.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner is one of the books I'd take with me to a desert island if, you know, I had to go to a desert island but could pick what I wanted to take with me (can I take a boat?). It's also not exactly obscure, since it was a 1997 Newbery honor book.

The thief in the story is Gen, who at the beginning of the book is in prison after he tried (and succeeded! But was caught) to steal the king's seal on a dare. When the king's magus needs a thief to steal a legendary stone, he chooses Gen. Gen is taken from prison and dumped on a horse to travel with the magus, his two apprentices, and a soldier.

It sounds like the opening of a tedious epic fantasy, but the book is set in an alternate universe version of ancient Greece and surrounding areas. Not only that, but Turner's writing is clean and brilliant, particularly her characterizations. Gen is not what he seems. A big part of why I love the book is Turner's ability to reveal new pieces of characterization and plot without making the reader suspect information is being held back. When we reach the bigger reveals, they seem natural rather than contrived. It's also delicious to see how the other characters react to Gen as his past and motivations unfold.

Oh, and this trick is handled in first person point of view. Awesome!

I recommend the book without reservations, myself, but I know at least one person who read it and said it dragged in the middle, when the party is traveling to find the stone. That's only part of the book, though, and the action picks up very quickly once they get where they're going. I do typically skip the recountings of the myths that are sprinkled throughout the book; they're interesting the first time, and important to the plot, but they don't hold my interest the way the actual text does. I skip the myths in Watership Down too, for what it's worth.

There are two sequels to the book: The Queen of Atollia, which I've read and hate with a white-hot passion, and The King of Atollia, which I have not read.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Maybe I was too cranky and crabby, too full of Halloween Tootsie Roll Pops and raspberry Twizzlers, to begin reading a story about the end of the world and what it's like to live in a cult and be a reluctant beekeeper, but I must honestly report that when I had finished the 420 pages of Margaret Atwood's latest, The Year of the Flood, I felt even crabbier.

The critics all love this book, so I am alone, probably, but I wanted to open a vein when Toby, the rape victim who got rescued by the God's Gardeners cult, decorated her cubicle with a room divider made from plastic twist ties.

At least she didn't have to eat any more hamburgers made out of dead people, being now among vegetarians.

I'm not being fair, because my issues get in the way: For example, when I watched "The Bourne Supremacy" and the hero was being bludgeoned with a gun handle, I kept thinking what a cute apartment he had and what a shame his designer blinds were getting blood-spattered.

In Atwood's bleak new world, there are corrupt police forces, gene-spliced life forms like sheep with human hair, pigs with human brain tissue, and, finally, an engineered virus that pretty much takes out the human population. Atwood switches perspectives from Toby the Beekeeper to Ren the exotic trapeze dancer, who's locked inside a sex club.

The Year of the Flood is creative, beautifully written, and grim. Maybe that's the truth about our human future--no cute houses, ever again.

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