Friday, August 19, 2016

My Favorite New Fantasy Series

I am a big fan of high fantasy. I got my first taste from the Narnia books, and was gifted the Shannara series as a middle schooler. Give me a series with elves and dwarves and trolls and chances are pretty good I will love it.

Not so sure I would have said the same about a fantasy series that revolves around necromancy, but that was before I discovered Sabriel, the first book in the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix. There are no elves or dwarves to be found, but there is a strong, female main character. Sabriel is the daughter of the Abhorsen, the good necromancer whose job it is to send the dead back into death, thereby undoing the work of the bad necromancers, who bring the dead back into life. When her father disappears, Sabriel is forced to leave the relative safety of her boarding school and venture into the Old Kingdom, where magic rules and technology is useless. She begins a quest to free her father and defeat an evil greater than she imagined.

One of the things I've loved about this series so far is the strong female leads. Sabriel portrays the titular young woman as someone who loves firecely, who thinks on her feet, who is more than willing to venture into the land of the dead to save people she loves. The setting is interesting-the Old Kingdom is full of magic, but it is bordered by a world that has what seemed to be mid-20th century-type technology. It gives the whole thing a bit of a steampunk vibe. I'm about a third of the way through the second book, and the strong female thing continues through that book as well. The mythology that underlies the action is different than other series I have read, which makes the story feel fresh. An added benefit is that I've been listening to it on audiobook, and Tim Robbins is the narrator. I discovered this series on a list of young adult books, but I really think that adult readers of fantasy novels will also enjoy it.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Old Records Never Die, by Eric Spitznagel

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to start this review with the admission that the author is a friend of mine. And, I'm sort of in the book. Which means I probably shouldn't even be reviewing it at all. And if I worked at an actual magazine writing official journalisty book reviews they would never in a million years let me be the one to review this book. But I don't. This is MY blog, and I DO WHAT I WANT.

Of course, I read the book in April when it was published, and I have gone back and forth with myself ever since about whether I can actually give it a fair review, or at least, if anyone else will believe I can give it a fair review. Plus, it feels a bit like an exercise in self-aggrandizement. "Look at me world, I know someone who wrote a book that was named one of Amazon's "must read" books. I am literary fame adjacent!" But here's the thing-I didn't just love this book because my friend wrote it. I love it because it is funny and tender and nostalgic and insightful (and funny, did I mention it's funny?).

Old Records Never Die is the true tale of a hero's quest. Spitznagel, our middle-aged protagonist, is driving down Lakeshore Drive one day, thinking about an interview he recently did with Questlove. Questlove is famous for being a prodigious vinyl record collector. He still has the very first 45 he ever bought. Suddenly, the growly rasp of a young Jon Bon Jovi comes on the satellite radio station, and Eric is struck by a bolt of lightning in the form of a sudden compulsion. He wants his records back. The records he collected in the 80s and 90s that he sold to pay rent. Not just records with the same titles as back in the 80s and 90s, but the ACTUAL records he owned. Records he had listened to over and over in his childhood home, his teenage bedroom, his college dorm, his first apartment. Records that he listened to with his dad, fought over with his brother, bought as bait for a certain girl in high school, or smoked weed to. Thus begins the epic journey, fraught with danger(ous, moldy piles of old records), which would lead Eric through the land of record conventions and other middle-aged dudes' basements, where he would meet fellow vinyl obsessives, and a few strange and perhaps slightly unhinged characters.

Of course, along the way he also rediscovers some of the younger self he left behind when he sold those records in the first place. I suppose it's natural when one gets to a certain point in one's life to reflect on the person you were in your teens and early 20s. Sometimes I think about my younger self and have trouble imagining that person eventually became me. There are things that happened that I wish I had paid more attention to at the time, and things that I spent way more emotional time and energy on than I should have. At the same time, I realize that impossible as it may seem from my lofty middle-aged perch, the me of today is the sum total of all of the things that younger self said and thought and did. This is something that Spitznagel explores throughout the book.

But this is not just a sappy trip down Memory Lane. There is little in the way of rank sentimentality in Old Records Never Die. Because Eric doesn't just stop at reliving his glory days (which he admits, with self-deprecating humor, weren't necessarily all that glorious). He isn't the musical equivalent of that old jock who never left home regaling everyone with stories of the time he threw the winning touchdown in the big game against Nowheresville. Spitznagel also examines how objects we owned at certain times in our lives become totems, tangible reminders of who were were when we got them. I am not a vinyl collector myself (though I do own a copy of Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet, given to me by my brother a few Christmases ago), but what Eric feels for records, I feel for books. I still have my original copies of the Little House books, and the Narnia books, and the copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that I read at least once a year for a decade or more. When I look at them, I see my 10 year old self reading in my bedroom surrounded by unicorn posters, or my 15 year old self trying desperately to get lost in the world of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn in a effort to forget that I was home alone on a Friday night. The Handmaid's Tale makes me remember myself as the college student who's world was turned upside down when she discovered feminism. Those books each hold a piece of who I would become, and I love them as unreasonably as Eric might love a warped old Replacements album.

There's also great stuff in Old Records Never Die about parenting and marriage and family and grief. Things that folks who aren't music collectors (or book collectors, or collectors of Doctor Who memorabilia, or whatever) can totally relate to, even if they don't really get why a 40-something man would spend a year of his life and a not inconsiderable amount of money tracking down pieces of black plastic. I especially recommend the last chapter, if you are looking for the feels. Because when you get right down to it, this book about music isn't just a book about music.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah's books are hit or miss for me. Sometimes I am completely swept away by the very human worlds she creates, and sometimes they feel a little bit too much like a Lifetime movie for me (I realize I use "Lifetime movie" as a pejorative a lot, but if sappy sentimentalism is your jam, good on ya!). Since The Nightingale was all over lists of book club picks this year, I figured eventually my book club would get around to it.
When we did, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. Set against the backdrop of World War II, the story follows the sisters through the German occupation of France. Vianne, whose husband Antoine has left to join the fighting, tries desperately to keep her small family together. She struggles to provide shelter and comfort to her children, all while staying under the radar of the Germans occupying her small rural village. Fiery Isabelle, on the other hand, joins the resistance, and undertakes the dangerous mission of shepherding downed  Allied pilots out of France. She saves dozens of people through her work, but she soon becomes a wanted fugitive, known only as The Nightingale. The sisters experience love and loss and betrayal and, ultimately, triumph, though in very different ways.

While it is important to tell and tell again stories of the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and dissidents who were sent to the camps, I find that I have developed an appreciation for books that focus on how the average citizen of Germany or France coped with the war. History books give us the major players, and the most important events, but I think that there is much to be learned from hearing about the way that war affects not just those who have been targeted, but those who are forced to live, day after day, under such oppressive conditions. While nothing compares to the horror of the camps, Hannah does an excellent job showing just how treacherous it was just to try and live your life during the occupation. While Isabelle was portrayed as outwardly heroic through her deeds, Vianne's quieter acts say just as much about the human spirit as Isabelle's grand ones. Much like Zusak did in The Book Thief, Hannah shows in The Nightingale that even when things seem the darkest, if you can hold on to even a spark of the light that is in each of us, there is cause for hope.

I think that the most intriguing character, though, is not Vianne or Isabelle. It is the Nazi officer, Capt. Beck, who ends up billeted with Vianne for a time. Hannah creates a character that is clearly struggling with what he is being asked to do. A devoted family man, Capt. Beck is a loyal German, who is also extremely uncomfortable with the way the Nazis treat the occupied French, and with being seen as a monster by the outside world. He ends up being a sympathetic character, even though he doesn't renounce Nazi-ism or help Vianne escape, etc...But he does show another side of the evils of war-forcing basically good men to go against their own nature in the service of an ideal or political goal they may or may not share.

Overall, I enjoyed this read, and it was good for some tear-jerk moments. I'd say even if you haven't been too impressed by Hannah's other work, I'd give this one a try.

Friday, July 01, 2016

The Storied Life of A.J Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

I'll admit it-I'm a sucker for books about books. Not literary analysis or style guides, mind you. Fictional stories about bookish people, places, or things. So I suppose it's no surprise that I found The Storied Life of A.J Fikry charming and endearing, much like the main character himself.

Fikry's life is getting narrower and narrower all the time. Depressed after the death of his wife, Fikry cuts himself off from his friends and neighbors on Alice Island slowly but surely. His bookstore is doing poorly, and his daily existence mostly consists of brooding in his office, followed by brooding in his apartment alone, except for the bottle of liquor he consumes like it's his job. His friend, Lambiase and his sister-in-law Ismay try to pull him out of himself and back to the world, but Fikry basically doesn't see the point. Even the attractive and persistent book rep, Amelia, who keeps coming to the island determined to make this curmudgeonly client accept at least one of her books.

He thinks things couldn't possibly get any worse, when his most prized possession, a copy of a collection of Poe stories, is stolen. Just when he's about to give up, a surprise package arrives on his doorstep-a baby! In a storyline that is not at all realistic but completely works anyway, he becomes the girl's guardian, and things begin to change for him.

Fikry's character is smart and sarcastic and hilarious. His love of books, and the way in which Zevin writes about them, made me chuckle aloud more than once, despite how hopeless Fikry is for much of the first quarter of the book. Even at his most self-pitying, I couldn't help but like Fikry. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. Zevin was not lazy with this one. All of the plot points are nicely summed up, and while many authors would have stopped at what was definitely one of the happiest points in the story, she didn't. Not only did the novel move past the easy, happy ending, it somehow made the not-as-happy ending into something wonderful. Zevin explores the power of words and stories, and the way that community and family are created in so many different ways.

It probably didn't hurt that this book contains two dreams of mine: island living and owning a bookshop. A bookshop on an island sounds pretty much like heaven to me. So yeah, I was predisposed to love this book. And love it I did, not just because of the bookishness of it all, but because of the heart and soul of this story of love and life and family and power of ideas.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Snow Moon Rising, Lori L. Lake

The atrocities committed against the Jewish people in Europe during World War II are well-covered ground in the literary world. The history of the Jewish genocide is well-documented in history books, and the human toll of the war and its depravity are demonstrated through the thousands of fictional accounts that have been written in the decades since the concentration camps were liberated. This is as it should be. The extreme example of xenophobia, greed, and racism displayed by Hitler and his Nazi followers is something that should never be forgotten.

(We often say that the Holocaust should be remembered so that we as a global community can make sure it never happens again. Sadly, we as a human family have failed in this aspiration time and time again-the Rwandan genocide, the crisis in Darfur, and the massacre at Srebrenica are but a few of the examples of modern day ethnic or religious violence.)

While the experiences of the Jewish people of Europe during the Holocaust is very well known, less talked about are the experiences of other groups that were persecuted and brutalized by the Nazis. Physically and mentally disabled children, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Roma people, and homosexuals were some of the groups that were singled out for "special" treatment. It is the Roma, known pejoratively as Gypsies, that are the subject of the book Snow Moon Rising.

The Roma people were a nomadic group, traveling the roads between European countries in large family groups called kumpania. The kumpania, made up of caravans and carts which were both the homes and workplaces of the Roma people, traveled from village to village, finding work when possible, hunting and gathering when work was hard to find. Some members of the caravans became artisans and craftsmen, selling their wares along the way.

Unfortunately, the Roma developed a reputation as thieves and con men. During the early part of the 20th century, many countries had laws banning the Roma people from traveling to certain places, or from being allowed to do certain jobs in the community. There was a deep distrust of the Roma, who were seen as a race separate from the "purer" European people, and were considered inferior, much like the Jews were.

It is into this culture that we are dropped when we read Snow Moon Rising. The book follows two
women, Mischka and Pippi, during the time period from World War I through World War II. Mischka is a young Roma girl at the beginning of the book, already chaffing against the rigid gender expectations of her clan. Pippi is the sister of a young German soldier who is rescued by Mischka's kumpania after he stumbles away from a bloody battle. Mischka and Pippi meet and become bonded in a way that is more than just friendship. Fast forward to World War II, and Mischka ends up in a German labor camp. Pippi, who must pretend to be a a German loyal to Hitler to survive, is sent ot the camp to oversee the production of uniforms for German soldiers. Here, the two women are reunited, and must work together to ensure that the prisoners get out of the camp alive. But the end of the war is not the end of the challenges for these women, because Europe is soon divided between the Soviets and the rest of the western world. Will Mischka and Pippi find a way to be together?

I found the description of the Roma way of life and the persecution they suffered fascinating. It also led me to many a discussion during this Halloween season as to why "gypsy" costumes were maybe not a good idea. Aside from being an exploration of the experiences of the Roma during the first half of the 20th century, this book is a lesbian love story. Mischka and Pippi take turns telling the story, which is actually a series of flashbacks spun out over the course of one evening to their grandson, who has never heard the story of his family's journey to America. Aside from the Roma history I learned, I appreciated an insight into what the life of the average German may have been during World War II. The final scenes of the book left me in tears for all the right reasons.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wake, by Anna Hope

There is no shortage of novels set in World War I or World War II. Those two conflicts, along with the Viet Nam War, defined most of the 20th century. The collapse of colonialism, the Cold War, the rise of America as a world power; so many things can be traced back to the wars and their aftermath. You'd think that over time those books would all start to blur together; that there wouldn't be anything new or different that could be said on the matter. And sometimes it does seem like the same story told over and over again in an endless stream of arrogant generals, miserable soldiers, and grieving mothers and widows. But sometimes an author takes a new approach to the subject that takes the reader to a part of the well-traveled path that is less well known.

Anna Hope manages this feat with her book, Wake. The story takes place three years after the end of
World War I. It follows three different women, all of whom lost something in the war. Ada, the grieving mother; Evelyn, the woman who's lover never returned; and Hettie, a young girl whose brother has come home from war physically unharmed, but emotionally wrecked. The stories of these women are connected by their experiences of war, and through the lens of the return to England of the Unknown Warrior (what we in America would call the Unknown Soldier). The perspective shifts from woman to women in the narration of the story, interspersed with the journey of the Unknown Warrior from a grave in the French countryside to a special resting place at Westminster Abbey.

The title seems to have two meanings. The most literal is that the entire country of Great Britain is having a wake for the Unknown Warrior as he finally returns home from war. This one soldier comes to symbolize all of those lost on fields of France and Belgium, and each person who watches the body in its ornate coffin travel by ship, train, and finally carriage to it's final resting place assign him meaning based on the people they lost in the war. But I think that the title also represents the awakening that the women in the novel have as they learn to accept and move past the grief and depression that four years of war and its aftermath wrought. These women learn to let go, each in their own way, of whatever is holding them back from moving forward with life. Ada must learn to let go of the fantasy that her son is really alive, and find a way to reconnect with her husband. Evelyn must find a way to let go of her hopes for the future with her beloved Fraser, and take the first steps towards finding new love. Hettie, who works in a dance hall to help her family survive financially, wants nothing more than to move away from her mother's oppressive beliefs and find her first love. More than anything she searched for freedom and joy in a world where most of the men of her generation have returned from war damaged emotionally and physically.

The men in the novel represent various classes of soldiers, officers and enlisted men alike, and there are some fairly dark descriptions of the horrors they witnessed. Each has come home, but none of them are able to just pick up their old life. Hope does a good job with her portrayal of how youthful enthusiasm and patriotic action was twisted and mangled into fear, cynicism, resentment, and hopelessness. As the Unknown Warrior reaches his final resting place, so too does the book reach its end, and like the citizens of the UK, the reader is left feeling ready to move on to a future that is brighter than the tragic past.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Where is Coco Chanel When You Need Her?

Coco Chanel once famously said, "Once you've dressed, and before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off". While she was talking about fashion, I think there is some relevance in that quote for writing as well. While good fiction can be mutli-layered and complex, adding more characters, more plot lines, more words just for the sake of them can take a decent story and put it over the top.

I think that Kristin Hannah should have taken that advice when writing The Magic Hour. It is the
story of a psychiatrist named Julia who must flee her practice in disgrace after a scandal involving a patient of hers who perpetrated a violent act at school. When her sister, the sheriff in the small town where they grew up, calls her to consult on a case, she sees both an escape hatch and a chance to earn some redemption. A little girl has shown up in the town-battered, bruised, malnourished, non-verbal, and animalistic. The sheriff wants Julia to assess the girl, and get her to tell them who she is. As Julia begins to work with the girl, she realizes that she has stumbled upon a feral child-a child who has essentially been raised  without any normal human socialization. As Julia becomes closer to the girl, she is determined to protect her from any and all outside influences that might want to exploit her.

This is the first Hannah book I've read, and I will admit that the kind of women's fiction she writes (a la Lifetime movie) is not really my jam. But I was intrigued enough with the premise that I think I would have been OK with the book if only she had followed dear old Coco's advice. There is a LOT going on in this book. There's the scandal that sends Julia away from her lucrative Los Angeles practice; the feral girl; a love story between Julia and one of the doctors in town, who in turn has his own secret that he is protecting; a love story between the sheriff and one of her deputies; a rocky relationship between the two sisters that must be resolved; a group of psychiatrists who want to study the girl like a specimen in a jar; and finally, the girl's father. The girl's father and his back story was the last straw.  See, the girl's father was a man who was accused of killing his wife and child (the girl) when they disappeared years before. Convicted of their murder, he was in jail until DNA tests determined that the girl was really his "murdered" offspring. When he comes to collect her, there is a war of wills between him-rich, arrogant, self-centered-and Julia-caring, nurturing, mama-bear like. It was just one thing too many. The love stories were irrelevant to the main plot, and the added convolution of the father being a convicted killer who maybe isn't a killer but is still a "bad guy" pushed it into the absurd.

Bottom line, I wasn't really feeling this one by the end. But I did finish it, so that's something, I suppose. So, lovers of Lifetime movies, have at it!