Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cinder-Marissa Meyer

Cinder-Marissa Meyer

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 390
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2012
YA Novel (Series: Lunar Chronicles)

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . . Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future. 



I have a distinct love for YA dystopias and Cinder is such an excellent example of a great book that swept me off my feet with surprise over how great it was. Especially since I didn’t go in really expecting that much from another retelling of a classic fairy tale. However, this fairy tale base really explains the whole structure of the novel.

The world building is fun albeit a bit unfinished (there’s more potential there) because in New Beijing androids and humans throng the streets. I might be incorrect calling it a dystopia exactly because the main flaw in the society is that it’s a little too like our own but with enough high tech to make it feel quite different. There’s definitely a sly little critique of racism which I always enjoy.  I love how great Cinder is. She’s got skills that she’s using and a complexity of character which allows for an understanding of why she needs to keep secrets. I mean, I kept getting annoyed when she kept making bad decisions but I kind of always feel that way whenever I read self-conscious YA heroines mostly because I had a few too many friends in high school who were like that. I also loved Kai, the confused overwhelmed prince of the kingdom.

The pace is great and though the revelation isn’t actually a revelation, the journey towards it is enjoyable.  Quite frankly naming the series the Lunar Chronicles really doesn’t keep it a terribly great secret.
 

Monday, January 28, 2013

I Curse the River of Time-Per Petterson

I Curse the River of Time-Per Petterson

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 233
gender: M
nationality: Norway
year: 2008
Novel, translated

In 1989, 37-year-old Arvid Jansen's marriage is ending and his mother is dying of cancer. Hoping to leave his marital woes behind in Oslo, Jansen follows his Danish-born mother to her home country, to the beach house where the family spent summers. During the ferry ride and the following days in Denmark, Jansen recalls his childhood bond with his mother and his decision, after two years of college, to leave school and join his fellow Communists in the factories. He struggles with his commitment to communism--the title is a line from a poem by Mao--and with his place in his family and in the larger world. Thankfully, there is neither overt sentimentalism nor a deathbed declaration of love between mother and son, but Petterson blends enough hope with the gorgeously evoked melancholy to come up with a heartbreaking and cautiously optimistic work.  



I’ve long been a fan of Ingmar Bergman with a particular love of Seventh Seal. Petterson’s prose reminds me of Bergman’s stark cinematography. This was written without any literary conceits and there’s not an extra word in the whole book. And this was in translation so I can’t imagine the original language is anymore ornate. The sharp and crisp prose thus has an almost detached feel which at times feels odd but is definitely necessary since otherwise this book would end up completely and unrelentingly bleak (in an unreadable way). The prose seems as desolate as the emotional landscape you’re hearing about so directly.

There’s no plot and no real exploration of the mother/son relationship or the divorce except in deep hindsight. Instead the book explored the inter-related life events (like his brother’s death), his mother as a person, and the girl in the blue coat (who probably became his wife).  Arvid lurks in the shadow of a brother who died too early in life, though we never quite learn how. He fails at attempts to make something of himself. His desire to be a communist worker is not at all appreciated, given his family’s sacrifice for his fantastic education. He is haunted by the dissolution of his own marriage. He wanders and you wander alongside him.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Dear First Love-Zoé Valdés



Dear First Love-Zoé Valdés

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 288
gender: F
nationality: Cuba
year: 2002
Novel in translation
    


The numbing rhythm of daily life in poverty-stricken Havana has deadened Danae's mind and spirit. In search of her first true love, Danae returns to the countryside of her adolescence, where the government of Fidel Castro had sent her and other teenagers in the late 1970s to work in the fields under a corrupt and sadistic overseer. It is there, surrounded by a natural world infused with spiritual wonders, that Danae met and fell in love with Tierra Fortuna Munda, a campesino girl her own age. When the adult Danae finds Tierra again, their lives are transformed and their love reborn. But the ultimate test -- their return to Havana -- still lies before them.
This is the first book I've read for the GWC challenge and it made sense to me to start in a country I know. 

I’ve heard stories of Castro’s Escuelas en el Campo (Schools in the Country) all my life. My uncle hated his experiences and my mother worked in the sugar cane fields. They have told of the horrible food, the lack of school at the Schools in the Country, the subpar living conditions and the overall sense of pointlessness. I say pointlessness because it never makes sense to force teenagers who’ve never seen a field go and weed some-these kids damaged the plants more than helped. It’s clear Valdés went to a School in the Country but perhaps later than my family because there’s no attempt to hold to the idea that these weeks were spent studying as well as working. But the story is definitely set before the ultimate failure of the program.

Danae is a typical fifteen year old who has never known a life without Castro and has never left Havana. Her relationship with her grandmother was suitably complicated and was at the age when she hates her mother who is portrayed in a way that made it clear that it must have been Danae’s age. When Danae is traveling to the camp where she is going to spend 45 days sleeping in a barely converted tobacco shed she is overwhelmed by the beautiful landscape full of things she lacks even the words for. This sense of wonder sharply contrasts with Danae as an adult who finds she must walk away from the stultifying boredom of her life in Havana. She has married a teenage sweetheart who is a decent man and has two daughters but finds herself thinking about her first love and the wonder of the country. Psychology lovers would probably claim Danae had a midlife crisis and sought to return to the moment when she first realized what it is to be happy. The other girls in the camp are all given nicknames that not only confirm their individuality but make the prose almost flow. 

So at its heart this is a story about what ifs and the pull of your first love and your first sexual experiences. The scenes between the girlfriends were treated well with a delicacy that quite frankly was lacking in the heterosexual scenes which highlights the otherworldliness of the first love experience.

That’s the rational part of the book. Intertwined into this is are the narrative voices of the music of the city, the Ceiba tree, Danae’s suitcase, a manatee, among others. Tierra Fortuna Munda is the result of an incestuous family and thus has six nipples, six fingers on each hand, and her navel secretes guava jelly. She is the goddaughter of the ceiba tree and thus she triumphs over the hardships she faces as she is protected by the spirits of the landscape. Valdés weaves this story about the pull towards each other the rational urban Danae and the mystical embedded-in-the-landscape Tierra feel. Valdés is often crude and the story often violent and full of tragedy and yet there’s a strange beauty about it all. 

It’s a heady environment that completely echoes my own experience. There’s something about a country in which whole forests may be torn down but out of mythology, the ceiba are left standing as they are considered "more solid than walls and revolutions". It’s hard to capture in speech but Valdés does well at dancing around it to allow the reader to feel it.

I’d say the story has three endings: the sad and tragic one, the martyrdom, and the miraculous mystical one.  By separating these threads apart for the ending, Valdés effectively refuses to answer what is natural and what is unnatural.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Last Brother-Nathacha Appanah

The Last Brother-Nathacha Appanah


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 201
gender: F
nationality: Mauritius
year: 2007
Novel

As 1944 comes to a close, nine-year-old Raj is unaware of the war devastating the rest of the world. He lives in Mauritius, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, where survival is a daily struggle for his family. When a brutal beating lands Raj in the hospital of the prison camp where his father is a guard, he meets a mysterious boy his own age. David is a refugee, one of a group of Jewish exiles whose harrowing journey took them from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine, where they were refused entry and sent on to indefinite detainment in Mauritius.


I for one, never have read about Mauritius and its involvement in WWII came as a bit of a surprise.  And it’s even more intriguing since the story is told through Raj, a local boy who has no idea about the war. We learn vaguely that these Jews escaped from various Eastern European countries to go to Palestine but were turned away by immigration. How must it have been to have all your hopes dashed of paradise and to end up in a prison in the middle of a jungle?  So, we as readers, are wondering about that even as Appanah focuses on Raj’s life of poverty. Raj lives a life terrorized by a powerless father, nurtured by a resilient mother, and safe within the embrace of two brothers.  When he loses them, his life gets uprooted in a way that impacts a nine-year-old  dramatically. This explains the bond he creates with David, one of the children in the prison. They are both sad, from grim backgrounds, marked by tragedy but still kings.

Told in rich, nostalgic detail, the narration walks the border between childlike and mature. There’s the child’s fear tinged with the mature adult’s admiration for his mother’s resilience of character.  The descriptions of Mauritius are loving and evocative tinged with an understanding of the way time can change our perceptions of a landscape. The plot is tragic but the telling of it has so many beautiful moments full of light and wonder with metaphors enriching the prose making it into a jungle of meaning. One example is the role of language, despite the novel being in one language (French originally), Raj speaks of his native tongue but communicates with David in French, a language both learned in school. David sings in Yiddish-a completely unknowable moment for Raj. 

A sad riddle of how histories can brush up against each other, impact each other, that clocks in under two hundred pages and never feels heavy. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Supernaturalist-Eoin Colfer

The Supernaturalist-Eoin Colfer

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 291
gender: M
nationality: Ireland
year: 2004
YA Novel

In a future dystopia, cities have become for-profit businesses. Orphanages are not exempt from the struggle to make money, and at the Clarissa Frayne Institute for Parentally Challenged Boys, kids are forced to endure product testing and frequently end up injured as a result. With orphans facing an average life expectancy of 15, 14-year-old Cosmo Hill knows that he is on borrowed time. Unfortunately, his escape attempt nearly proves fatal. While he's lying there dying, a small, hairless blue creature lands on his chest and begins to feed. He is rescued by the Supernaturalists, a motley crew of young people who have dedicated their lives to destroying the Parasites, which feed on the essence of the living. Cosmo joins the group as a Spotter, someone who can actually see the creatures and thus destroy them. However, facts soon emerge that cause the Supernaturalists to question everything they believe in. Is it possible that the Parasites don't feed off of the energy of dying people, but remove pain?


I started out the Supernaturalist feeling enthused about it. I liked Cosmo Hill, felt bad for the orphan/non-sponsors in their absolutely capitalistic ‘orphanage’ and was really rooting for them. The build up was enjoyable and the world building was good. There was action and character development and all that good stuff.

And then it all went away. It just all stopped being as fun. I expect my YA characters to keep on developing as the book goes on and that didn’t happen. With the focus being entirely on action, that bit started to seem contrived and then the villain showed up and was immediately vanquished. It was like, oh here’s the villain we’ve been preparing to fight for most of the book and we meet and vanquish him in a chapter’s time. What? So soon? Without a good villain, it’s hard to develop characters so I see Colfer’s problem there. 

I don’t know, I thought it started with so much promise but there wasn’t enough follow through and so it all fizzed out.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I Saw Ramallah-Mourid Barghouti

I Saw Ramallah-Mourid Barghouti

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 182
gender: M
nationality: Palestine
year: 2004
Non-fiction, Memoir in translation

Barred from his homeland after 1967’s Six-Day War, the poet Mourid Barghouti spent thirty years in exile—shuttling among the world’s cities, yet secure in none of them; separated from his family for years at a time; never certain whether he was a visitor, a refugee, a citizen, or a guest. As he returns home for the first time since the Israeli occupation, Barghouti crosses a wooden bridge over the Jordan River into Ramallah and is unable to recognize the city of his youth. Sifting through memories of the old Palestine as they come up against what he now encounters in this mere “idea of Palestine,” he discovers what it means to be deprived not only of a homeland but of “the habitual place and status of a person.”


It’s hard to blog about this book. Barghouti really is talking about a very complex situation, a very personal life, and yet there are threads of feeling that are universal.

Barghouti left Palestine for a college education at 22 and only recently has been allowed to go back home. His prose, even in translation, is ethereally poetic and his simple phrasing allows for ideas to hit hard. His struggle with exile and his sorrow for what he was forced to leave behind is almost palpable.

Let’s be frank, his themes hit hard for me personally. My mother returned to Cuba after over 40 years of exile in a homecoming I can perhaps best describe as bittersweet. I read echoes of this in Barghouti when he is talking about his visit back home to the house of his family. And Barghouti is constantly lamenting that his son will never understand his country of origin. I have to say that sometimes I wanted to tell Barghouti, “Listen, it’s not just a Palestinian thing-even if your son could visit Palestine and live there, he’d never know.” As a daughter of immigrants, I can tell you that their countries are as foreign to me as Barghouti laments Palestine is to his son. Couched in Barghouti’s delightful prose, were ideas, that I had thought of vaguely that I knew my father must have felt, fully realized on the page. The book is not all lamentation…just that I identified most with them. I’m an ex-patriot raised around people in exile so that makes sense.

Most of the rest of the book is about memory but Barghouti actually manages to avoid outright nostalgia. Instead there is a resilience that strengthens memory into something with a purpose.

Goodness, I’m not able to express any of this right. I can only capably talk of the parts I recognized in myself. I lack Barghouti’s clarity, vision, and strength of prose. He is like most Middle Eastern poets, capable of telling you so much in so few words. If you have any interest in the region, I think this is a must-read.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Birthmarked-Caragh O'Brien

Birthmarked-Caragh O'Brien


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 361
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2011
Novel, YA (Series: Birthmarked)

In the future, in a world baked dry by the harsh sun, there are those who live inside the wall and those, like sixteen-year-old midwife, Gaia Stone, who live outside. Gaia has always believed it is her duty, with her mother, to hand over a small quota of babies to the Enclave. But when Gaia’s mother and father are arrested by the very people they so dutifully serve, Gaia is forced to question everything she has been taught to believe.


Fascinating. Another book which I finished feeling like I had too much adrenaline.

Gaia is another great heroine, fighting a lifetime of indoctrination without anything supernatural about her. Her greatest strength is instead very feminine-midwifery. It’s a nice change of pace to read a compelling heroine who isn’t physically intimidating or forced to fight.  I mean, she doesn’t even have a familiar! (Of course she has a love interest, we’re not totally off the beaten path of YA!)

O’Brien skillfully created ambiguity about the enclave and many of the characters which meant the plot was constantly moving at a quick clip with plots hiding behind every corner. And she does this with a third person narrative! There are sinister shadows, self-sacrifice, and fully developed characters  that reveal more of themselves with prolonged contact. You know, just like real people do. There’s no real world building, you’re plunged straight into the idea that there is an enclave that Gaia gives babies to (other women’s, not her own).  I even spent time wondering whether the enclave was entirely corrupt or whether it was just that Gaia was hanging out in its most corrupt corridors which is a delicious bit of moral exploration.