Friday, September 11, 2015
Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is probably not a book I would have ever picked up off the shelves. I don't usually like modern literature, because it seems to be either full of unlikable, neurotic characters, or it is so obviously engineered to tug at your heartstrings, full of artificial emotions. But this book was chosen by our book club (as part of our library's book club recommended books), so I read it. And I'm glad I did!
It is set in the 80's (which is important to the story), and the narrator is 14-year-old June Elbus. June is a misfit - a bit of a history nerd, who fantasizes about living in the middle ages. Her older sister, Greta, is the "pretty one" and is a budding stage star who seemingly has everything together. June's uncle is the famous artist, Finn Weiss, and he is dying of AIDS. Finn is not just June's uncle - he is her godfather, and basically her only real friend.
After Finn's death, June is bereft and having difficulty coping. Her mother wants her to "get over it" and get on with life, but June just can't seem to. Then she ends up meeting the mysterious stranger who was at Finn's funeral, but who was denied entrance. She becomes friends with him, and learns more about Finn, and about her family and herself.
Having the book set at the time when AIDS was just becoming known in the mainstream, and at a time when homosexuality was not as openly accepted, allows the story to have sharper emotional arcs. The fear of AIDS and the denigration of gays add to the already fragile family dynamic and to June's difficulties in handling what is happening.
This book has many themes: it's partly a coming-of-age story, but it also deals extremely well with the highs and lows of having a sister. The relationships between June and Greta is handled exquisitely. No one can love you and simultaneously hate you like a sister - and the author nails this. The character of June is also outstanding. Her fears, her hopes, her emotions are all quite true to life, without being too whiny, as many teen protagonists end up being. This ability to portray teen life (both outward and inward) is one of the many strengths of this book.
And, despite the fact that it deals with AIDS, and fear and prejudice against gays, it never falls into the trap of being preachy, nor is it ever maudlin. Because the characters seem so real, the events that transpire never feel contrived. It really captures what it feels like to be 14 and trying to navigate a big, scary world. June Elbus is a strong, believable, and likable character, and her story is one that anyone can relate to.
Sunday, September 6, 2015
Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Not CJ's best book, by any means. It wasn't terrible, but it was pretty ordinary, which for CJ is kind of shocking. Granted, this was fairly early in her career, so I'll make allowances, but for fans of hers, be warned: this doesn't meet her usual writing standards.
A rusalka is a ghost, from Slavic/Russian folklore, of a woman who died violently in the water - accidental drowning, suicide or murder. This spirit haunts the woods near where she died, drawing energy by killing unsuspecting people who happen by. This book is a very long fairy tale about one such spirit.
The book is set in what would appear to be Medieval Russia. It begins in a small village, where we see a young ne'er-do-well, Pyeter, get in a fight with the husband of a woman he's seduced. The man dies during the fight (without being touched by Pyeter) and the village authorities are called out. Pyeter was wounded in the fight, and hides in the stable of the local inn. He is discovered there by Sasha, the young stable boy, who has a bad habit of wishing things about people and having those wishes come true. For whatever reason, Sasha decides to help Pyeter, and they end up running away together. They eventually stumble across the home of an old man, who saves Pyeter's life by healing him with magic. The old man, Uulamets, is a wizard, you see. He tricks the young men into helping him resurrect his dead daughter, Eveshka, who is a rusalka.
The first part of the story moves along rather well, though the character development of the two young men is fairly sketchy, especially that of Sasha. Once they join forces with Uulmamets and begin trying to rescue Eveshka, the rest of the book is mostly arguments. Pyeter & Sasha argue. Sasha and Uulamets argue. Eveshka and Uulamets argue. All four of them argue. This goes on and on and on, for the rest of the book. There are encounters with other magical creatures from Slavic/Russian folklore, but these don't overshadow the incessant bickering among the characters. Even the final battle seemed to be just a blip between arguments.
The magic in this world is never fully defined - it seems to be along the lines of simply wishing and believing things, though Uulamets uses potions and spells, as well. People seem to be born with the ability to use magic, and those that are recognized as such can be taught by wizards. But clearly, wizards and magic are not thought of in a positive light by the mundanes, since Sasha was so ostracized and criticized for his 'wishing' abilities. Otherwise, one would think he would have been sent to a wizard as an apprentice.
Another nit to pick: CJ massively overuses the phrase "with which" and its similar cousins. Every other page, and sometimes twice on the same page, we get something along the lines of:
She wanted them safe. Which notion far from reassured him.
...Upon which thought...
...After which decision...
Used sparingly, there is nothing wrong with these phrases. But they are used dozens of times in this book - and often enough that they are jarring interruptions to the flow of the story.
Between the unending arguments and the awkward phrasing, this book needed the hand of a very good editor. Sadly, it didn't benefit from such. As the first in a trilogy, it doesn't spur me to want to read the rest of the books, though I may give them a try - someday.
Monday, August 31, 2015
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the second time I've read this book, though the first time was over 30 years ago, so I didn't remember anything other than the fact that I really liked it. Having just seen Vonda N. McIntyre on several panels at WorldCon (the world science fiction convention) I was prompted to reread this classic. And I'm very glad I did!
The book is set in a post-apocalyptic future on earth (hints as to a nuclear holocaust, but there are also references to aliens) where our protagonist, a young healer named Snake, is out on a journey to remote areas, as sort of a traveling country doctor. The unique thing about her healing is that she uses snakes as a medium for medicine delivery. Through genetic manipulation, healers have created snakes that metabolize various medicines. A bite from one of these snakes injects the medicine instead of venom. (Healers also provide vaccinations via a more typical mechanism.) Healers also have a special snake, called a dreamsnake, that is alien in origin, and whose bite is used as a painkiller and a sedative. This snake is important in helping patients during treatment, and also in helping patients who are dying, so that they can die in peace.
We first see Snake among desert nomads, treating a boy with a cancerous tumor. She starts one of her snakes on the process of metabolizing a cure, which will take several hours. She leaves the dreamsnake with the boy to ease his pain and keep him from being afraid. She goes outside to rest, and meets a young man from the tribe, named Arevin. When she goes back in, she discovers that the boy's family killed the dreamsnake because they were afraid of it. Since dreamsnakes are alien in origin, and healers don't know how to breed them, the loss of one is a terrible blow. Because of this, Snake fears she will no longer be able to be a healer. The rest of the book is about her journey to find more dreamsnakes.
I liked the mix of primitive (nomads living in the desert, riding horses) and advanced (genetic manipulation, alien contact) and it all seemed very believable. The only thing that was a bit weak was the immediate love between Arevin and Snake. They really only had a couple of conversations together, but somehow fell deeply in love - so much so that Arevin risks his life in trying to find Snake after she leaves his tribe.
The storytelling is otherwise quite strong, with interesting characters who have believable motivations. This is definitely a page-turner, as Snake gets closer and closer to finding the truth about dreamsnakes. And her relationship with Melissa, a little slave girl whom she frees and adopts, rang quite true.
I was pleased to see that a book from decades ago doesn't show any signs of aging or of feeling outdated. There are no old-fashioned prejudices or cultural references. Like Dune, the world in this book stands outside of time and culture, while its themes of trust, fear of others, and perseverance against all odds are still relevant to our current day. This is a rousing good story, with a strong female protagonist that anyone can relate to.
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I must admit that I felt a great deal of trepidation before I finally decided to read Go Set A Watchman. I had heard the leaked reviews that Atticus Finch (the beloved icon of reason and justice in To Kill A Mockingbird) was a racist supporter of segregation in this book. This was hard for me to accept, as much as I admire that character, and as much as I love that book – I’ve read it 30-40 times in my lifetime, and each time I appreciate it more, and get something new out of it. So, it was with trembling fingers that I finally picked it up to read. But it was very much worth it!
First, one must keep in mind that this book isn’t a true sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird – it was submitted to the publisher, who requested that Ms. Lee rewrite it to focus on the character of Scout as a young girl. However, for a fan of Mockingbird, it’s hard to not read it as a sequel – most of the same characters are present (with the notable exception of Boo Radley.) And Scout is very much the same, even though this story takes place about 20 years after the events in Mockingbird. Scout is in her mid-twenties, but is still the impetuous, independent person we saw in Mockingbird. In this new book, she is coming home (from NYC) for a visit with her family and her beau. It is very much a coming-of-age story – even though Scout is an adult – as she is forced to confront some things in her family and in her own life that will truly set her on her feet as her own person.
The first part of the novel feels much the same as Mockingbird – Scout fights with her Aunt Alexandra (that pillar of imperial southern women) just as she did as a child, and her memories of youthful escapades could easily fit into the pages of Mockingbird. Things take a decided turn toward new territory when Scout surreptitiously attends a meeting of the ‘town council’ which Atticus chairs, only to find it is a meeting about how to deal with the ‘black problem’ – complete with a racist speaker who calls Negroes sub-human. Scout is beyond stunned, as she remembers the time that Atticus defended a Negro against a rape charge, and won on appeal (another difference from Mockingbird) and she remembers that he always treated Negroes with respect, when most other people didn’t. And not only is Atticus there, but so is her boyfriend, whom she had been thinking of marrying.
Angry, shocked and confused, she goes to her Uncle Jack (Atticus’ brother) to tell him what she saw. Here she doesn’t find the comfort that she thought she would, and she leaves as angry as she arrived. She finally confronts Atticus, with accusations of racism and bigotry, and he doesn’t defend himself. This is probably the hardest part for a Mockingbird lover to read – Atticus speaks about the “black problem” and the “meddling” of the NAACP, and he constantly refers to the Negro community as “children” who need the guidance of white people. His only response to Scout’s accusations is “I love you.”
Still not knowing what to think, she returns to Uncle Jack, where he confronts her with the revelation that she must be her own conscience (the “watchman” of the title) and not rely on Atticus to be her moral compass. She must fully grow up and become her own person.
Overall, the book was not quite as good as Mockingbird (but what is?), though I still think it has merit on its own. The point of the book – to learn to be your own person – is relevant to everyone, and the issue of racism and bigotry is, sadly, still one we must confront. I think it serves as a great adjunct to its ‘big brother’ and I enjoyed my visit back to Maycomb, Alabama. And, speaking as a true fan of Mockingbird, I’m glad I read it and I don’t feel as if it has spoiled the image of the Atticus I know and love.