Hello, and welcome to 2016! My big, personal book news involves the publication of YA fantasy novel, Sword and Verse! My friend, Manu, was the beta reader and her friend the author basically lives in my backyard. Manu, on the other hand, is from Brazil, but she came to my little corner of the world to help promote the book. :D We hung out at the Smithsonian and Kramerbooks in DC (I shoved The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri onto her), and then I went to one of their launch events at a nearby library branch. So much fun! My review of the book is below.
One of the first things I read this year concerned George R. R. Martin confirming that he wouldn’t be able to get the sixth book of A Song of Ice and Fire out before the new season of Game of Thrones this April. :/ I admit…I was kinda hoping he might be able to pull it off. But Alyssa Rosenberg wrote nicely in The Washington Post about why this news might not be such a bad thing after all.
In wider and more ethnic book news, the JBC announced the 2015 winners of the National Book Awards! They cover everything from various types of fiction to anthologies, biographies, history and scholarship. Shortly after that, the Association of Jewish Libraries announced the 2015 Sydney Taylor Book Award, honoring childrens’ and YA fiction. Gulp. Might be time for me to get out my favorite hashtag, #TooMuchToRead. :P
Found this book on my work truck a week or so ago, and my eyes boggled at the title. Is there really some sort of history with POCs, (presumably liberal) women and the LGBTQ community within an interpretation of Evangelical Christianity?! Goes against what stereotypes I’ve seen, but that title is certainly meant to be enticing and I’m intrigued. Someone should read/review this book and get back to me. :P
Check out more of my book pics on Instagram!
Started big this year, and went through 8 books! :D Already mentioned Sword and Verse. I also had to finish the Starglass duology that I started last month, and then I had to indulge in my annual Best American Short Stories tradition. Skimmed three books off of the top of my TBR with Battle Royale, I Am Forbidden and Hush. Finally, I’m really enjoying listening to the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins on audiobook. :D It’s giving me those Hunger Gamesesque cost-of-war themes that I’ve been missing out on. Overall I think I’m sticking to my resolution to be a little more critical with my rating system, but I really enjoyed most of these books!
Terra chases her dreams down to Zehava–or Aur Evez as the natives call it. North’s narrative shines most in the beginning as she builds up this intriguing planet with sentient plant life. Would be a good chance for Terra to make a mark for herself as a botanist and painter, but instead she gets waylaid by an incredibly cheesy love story. She tries to equate this alien romance to gay relationships (forbidden by the council) but ugh. It would have been better character development, IMHO, if Terra had challenged the status quo of the married, heterosexual lifestyle by choosing to remain single, and realizing that she didn’t need a guy to complete her.
Of course, the Asherati people’s quest for a homeland is kind of/sort of an allegory for the Jews, constantly expelled and looking for the promised land. In history, we are often seen as both colonists and refugees, similar to the people here. But as Rachel grows more religious (sadly, also more fundamentalist and intolerant, though I respect that this is a believable response to social unrest) it becomes clear to me how incongruous religious Judaism is with the extraterrestrial–all of our myths, our narrative about Israel, they’re all Earth bound. Rachel invoking them as the reason to turn back to our planet of origin is the most Jewish content in this book (other than her also saying the blessing over the wine. :p). On the other side of things, the biologist, Jachin, believed in “HaShem,” although the council dissuaded belief, and that led him to the Children of Abel. I also liked how they changed the words of the Kaddish to signify life on Asherah, but it was still seen as a tradition, even in changing times.
The world building in the Underland isn’t anything too complicated, but no character is left to be one-dimensional. Gregor is a deeply empathetic narrator who, although he sometimes feels anger at characters like the vain princess, say, always encourages himself to see things from her perspective. His own 11-year-old coping for dealing with the sudden and unexplained absense of his father is also fleshed out, and the entire story has a “Wrinkle in Time” feel, with him and Boots going to a fantasy land to rescue him.
This book is straight-up fantasy, and the prophecy of a warrior/savior appears to be real, unlike with Katniss and the trumped up propaganda of the Mockingjay. But despite this seemingly simplistic hero’s journey, Gregor had to deal with the effects of seeing death, and like in the Hunger Games, had to struggle with the concept of living a life with hope after fighting in a war. This level of emotional and psychological investment made me feel for the characters more than I thought I would; I even got teary at the end. *awkward coughing*
Pitlor mentions GoodReads, but in the context of pointing out how many readers demand (unfortunately) “likable” characters. Wish she found more reviews like mine. TC Boyle seems refreshingly optimistic about the present–or maybe just his skill as a curator. He claims the stories here have more depth than a couple he picked out of the premiere 1915 edition of this anthology. Promising start!
My favorite stories:
“Sh’khol,” Colum McCann (Zoetrope: All-Story) The narrative is sweeping, encompassing a lot of themes. I’m a sucker for stories that consider dwindling Jewish communities, and I’m also tickled that McCann wrote something around a complicated Hebrew word.
“Thunderstruck,” Elizabeth McCracken (StoryQuarterly) For McCracken’s stories I think this is still a lesser one for me, but she may be my favorite writer here. Could be bias because I read her full book of short fiction. But the characters, situation, background are real and complex and draw me in the most.
“Kavitha and Mustafa,” Shoba Rao (Nimrod) A little more of an action plot, but finally, a story in a non-western setting. She does a good job giving depth and history to her main couple, too. And I love her final line in her contributor’s note–“Violence, after all, is not difficult. Humanizing that violence is what is difficult.”–so true.
Battle Royale, in essence, asks the audience to play the game–each chapter even begins with a countdown of students left alive, and many of the chapters that flit between players, many of whom die pages later, often felt like some sort of video game avatar’s psych assessment. The Hunger Games is much more about the effect of the Games on society, but the tributes are also playing a very different sort of game. There’s a player that is entirely absent from the Program–the audience, or sponsors, in particular. The tributes, in fact, spend a week leading up to the Games attempting to create a narrative/propaganda to impress Game Makers and sponsors that might help them to survive. The Battle Royale characters are more about face value, it seems. No one is going to help them, so the way they respond to the Program, which they are forced into about a half an hour after learning their fates, is about their genuine personalities.
I think Battle Royale suffers from being too long and following too many different characters around. if Takami had stuck to three or four different people with varying reactions, it would have been much more powerful. As it stands, most of their back stories were pretty one dimensional, and the most “evil” male and female students were stereotypes. I also felt like the game maker figure read like an internet troll–maybe that’s just the translation, which could be distractingly infantile–with his circuitous language and deliberately goading of the students. Then again, maybe that’s an accurate portrayal of fascism. :p
The Satmar are not just some vaguely defined, ultra-religious sect; they have roots in a town in Transylvania, from which they were expunged during the Holocaust, and then they re-establish themselves in Brooklyn, NY. As a microcosm, the orphans Mila and Josef, who later marry, feel bound to, and a sense of purpose in, their communal religious doctrine as a way to find meaning in the murders of their families. They, and Atara, also grapple in very different ways when they witness a factual event, of how their leader, the Satmar Rebbe, turned to hypocritical and arguably inhumane methods to survive the Nazis. The novel does not take sides, and I commend it for that.
The pacing is a little uneven, and barrels forward like a life’s summary after the “forbidden” event in the late ’60s. I get why Mila turned so desperately to the biblical story of Tamar, but I don’t get why she decided to join the Parisian protestors for a day. Seemed a bit convenient, in a novel where Markovits got to probe so much history anyway. (There’s a whole lot about Central Europe, ending with the communism that drove our main characters out and literally sealed the border on them). I did love her descriptive prose about Parisian streets. She doesn’t spoon-feed her audience anything–including Yiddishisms and religious practice, leading to an occasional set of brackets. But I imagine the general non-Jewishly inclined reader might be confused, even with the glossary in the back.
The first half of the book could be a little flippant. We go back and forth between past and present, so we know that something horrible has happened to the protagonist’s best friend, Devory, but the details almost come to us like the audience is playing a game of Clue. I did appreciate the different characterizations of said protagonist, Gittel, at 9 and then 18-20; felt realistic to me.
Gittel witnesses part of the abuse in the former part, which understandably comes back to haunt her in the latter, when, with marriage, her own sex life begins. This is a novel about sexual abuse done right; no exploitation, and a lot of emphasis on the complicated impacts it had on members of the community. Because of ingrained and external dogmatic refusal to confront the issue, characters go into varying stages of denial, cover up and strain on their relationships. Gittel could never express her guilt and frustration in words, leading to some physical property damage that I thought might break up her marriage. She’s better at writing letters to Devory, though those got a little redundant after awhile. I also thought her monologue at the end was a little pat, but the author could have ended the whole story on some sort of Lifetime/Hallmark note with total redemption and Justice, and she didn’t.
There are plenty of middle grade tales where the protagonists are called back to the magical world again and again, but this one has the consequences. Gregor’s dad’s ordeal has left him frail, and this has a major effect on the family’s finances. Later, when we are in the heart of the new story in the Underland, there’s still plenty of reflection on war and loss. Gregor’s relationship with Ares, particularly, grows much stronger, but they have a great scene near the end where they lament the simpler days, before they’d even met.
In continued Hunger Games geekery, one of the more popular phrases in the Prophecy of Bane reminded me of my most ardently supported fan theory about the YA trilogy–that Coin purposely killed Prim for very definitive reasons. “Die the baby, die his heart, die his most essential part” (Collins is also a good poet). Of course, that phrase likely means something different than what we all first assumed, given a twist that, among other things, leads to a sequel more easily than the last book did.
I’ve read some reviews that claim this is more of a romance than a fantasy, and I wonder if popular, contemporary trends in YA genre publishing have kind of muddied the whole “fantasy” issue. Not to say that MacMillan accomplished, or intended to, anything on the scale of Tolkien, but fantasy world building relies upon that conflagration of mythology, socio-cultural issues and language. (She created scripts for three!). Unfortunately, also much like Tolkien and Lewis, the darker skinned people turn out to be the most oppressive; this is a trope we should definitely move away from in publishing, thanks to our own socio-cultural issues. But Raisa did offer some intriguing commentary on the nature of slavery and how it effects the whole society.
One of the less fortunate aspects of first person narration is the limited scope; I think it would have done us some good to see, first hand, schisms between members of the Resistance and schisms between Mati and the nobility of his culture. Lessens the impact to just have them told to Raisa. But I respect Raisa’s conflicted response to betraying Mati and the more violent parts of the Resistance; empathy for life is always cool in my book. :p. I’m even ok with her not wanting to give up her lifestyle, or her fear to act at the beginning, because that’s all very human. Even Kirkus Reviews calls Raisa selfish, and therefore an less worthy heroine, but I don’t think that flawed characters should only exist in literary fiction. I want to see them everywhere.
Didn’t add a whole lot of books this month, but there’s a little bit of (sub)genre variety. Also, thanks to JBC’s spring 2016 preview, I added all of my Amazon wishlist books on the same day. :P It’s fun to know some of what’s coming up in publishing!
- Amazon wishlist: The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson; domestic drama against the political realities of Jerusalem between the two World Wars. Piece of Mind by Michelle Adelman; twenty-something coming-of-age story where circumstances force the protagonist from her Jewish home. The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman; Jewish domestic drama about two girls who are born, late ‘40s, in a two-family brownstone.
- The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona, a young woman forced to live as a converso in 15th century Spain. Excited to read about this time period in Jewish history!
- Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, space stations, androids and protagonists from Tel Aviv…aka my next foray into the Jews in Space topic. :P Also trying out more hard science fiction, which yay!
- Invisible City by Julia Dahl, a murder mystery/Hassidic identity story in Brooklyn, NY. A finalist from the Edgar and Mary Higgins Clark Awards, which might make this my first mystery genre read! Huzzah!
- Looking for Alaska by John Green, welp, he said it himself in a recent YouTube video. The movie adaptation is, at best, going on without him. So I figured it was time to stop putting this off, and just add the book to my TBR, yup yup.
Went through an internal crisis where I feared my written reviews for my three favorite reads of 2015 (especially The Dovekeepers, but also Station Eleven and The Interestings) weren’t strong enough. So I decided to make a video. Now I’m not sure the video is strong enough, but whatever, it’s out there, and it gives more insight into why I loved these books (and my honorable mentions, the Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante, #FerranteFever). :P
Transitioning well from the video, I got inspired by BookTube to highlight some other 2015 reads of which I think highly. Basically I gave a lot of 5 out of 5 stars, and even though most of them aren’t among my very faves, they are pretty special! So why not give them yearbook-like superlative labels? (Expect a lot of silliness with some of these “categories.”) After this, I promise, I’m done obsessing over 2015, and I’m only moving forward. :P There’s so many books out there, and I’d better get to them. Happy reading!