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Joyful Girl

Andrea Blythe's blog about writing, reading, and everything else


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Books Read in June
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1. Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill
2. I, Claudius (audio book), by Robert Graves
3. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones
4. An Artificial Night, by Seanan McGuire
5. Locke and Key: Head Games, written by Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez
6. Unbeknownst, Julie Hanson
7. Desert Places, by Robyn Davidson


REVIEWS:

1. Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill
Due to my large stack of new books to be read, I hadn't intended to pick up this book and read it for the second time. But as I was sitting there, trying to decide what to read next, it just kept staring at me from the bookshelf. I kept thinking, God, that was such a damn good book, and then I found myself opening up to the first page and becoming engrossed all over again.

The story is of an aging rock star, named Jude, who has all his life sung about death and pain and has amassed a rather large collection of bizarre oddities over the years, as well as goth groupies. So, when he sees a ghost for sale on an online auction, he buys it, and ends up getting exactly what he asks for. Bad things ensue.

This is not just a great horror story, but a great story period. It is an emotionally complex journey, because facing death, Jude cannot help but look back on his life, on the decisions he's made, and the people he's either been hurt by or hurt. Joe Hill does an amazing job of making you care about these characters, even though they are certainly not goodie-goodies. Death hovers at the edges of everything in this story, but so does life and the will to live against obstacles that seem impossible to surmount. I love this story, and I'm sure after a period of time, I'll want to read it again.


2. I, Claudius (audio book), by Robert Graves
The Roman emperor Claudius presents a record of his family and his life. Known as the idiot child of the imperial family due to nervousness and an unfortunate stutter (as well as a tendency to ill health), Claudius manages to escape much of the backstabbings, poisonings, and nefarious intrigues that plague the rest of his far-reaching family.

This turned out to be a fun read, although it sometimes comes off sounding like a history book (not surprising since Claudius is a historian much of his life). I don't know how much the infighting between family members and the general lust for power is based on actual history (my guess is Graves fudged quite a bit), but it is rather entertaining for the most part.


3. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones
This mock travel guide gives the reader advice on how to "tour" Fantasyland, a generic world based on all the tropes and cliches from numerous fantasy novels. The result is part criticism, part loving tribute, and more often than not a humorous poking fun at cliches of the genre the author clearly loves.

As much as this book will be enjoyed by readers of fantasy, it is also rather invaluable to writers of fantasy, as its a rather thorough list of all the things that have been done before, done so often, in fact, that they can be easily compiled into a guide on how to navigate such an imagined reality. As a writer myself, I would use this book as a way to think about how I write, as in "Am I including this just because it the default trope for fantasy, or am I including it because it's the best available option for this story?"


4. An Artificial Night, by Seanan McGuire
In the third book of the October Daye series, both faery and human children are going missing. Set to find and save the children, Toby finds herself on several dark and dangerous roads that lead to Blind Michael and his wild hunt.

Toby also unfolds and grows along her journey, and we learn some surprising things about why she flings herself so savagely into danger. Her relationships with all the various infuriating, strange, humorous, and lovable characters surrounding her also grow.

Seanan McGuire's writing is getting better with each book, and she has a knack for keeping the action and tension high, making An Artificial Night supremely readable, the very definition of a page turner.


5. Locke and Key: Head Games, written by Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez
In the second book of the graphic novel series, the Locke family begins to learn more about the mysterious properties of the keys and doors within their new home. One discovery is mind-blowingly awesome (an entirely appropriate pun and cliche).

I don't really want to say any more about the book, because the surprises of the storyline are just too good to reveal. You must read them. As always the writing and art are fantastic, in fact, it seems to be getting better from here.


6. Unbeknownst, Julie Hanson
You never know quite what you're going to get when you pick up a book by a poet you've never read before. Fortunately, Julie Hanson's Unbeknownst was a charming find. Her free verse poetry is a humorous look at the seemingly mundane, elevating the everyday experience and making it sing. A really lovely book of poetry.


7. Desert Places, by Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson has the tendency to envisage a romantic ideal trip, like journeying in the desert with the nomadic peoples of India, only to slam up hard against a solid brick wall of reality.

Davidson thought it would be as simple as contacting a group of Ribari (one tribe of India's nomadic people) and convincing them to let her join them on one of their sojourns. She quickly learns that its easy to dream the trip, but pulling it off was a fumbling, frustrating process of continued disappointment. Many Ribari don't trust her, afraid that she might be a spy for the government and many of those who do are not making nomadic journeys at that time, either for reasons of poverty or prosperity. When she does connect with a group of Ribari, who do claim to trust her, who offer to take her with them, Davdison finds again and again her hopes dashed as the plan falls apart just days before she is meant to start her journey. Again and again over the course of over a year a blooming hope of finally bringing the trip to fruition is stomped into the dust, and she finds herself on numerous occasions considering giving up the plan entirely.

But Robyn Davidson has a tenacity and a courage that should astound anyone and eventually finds a tribe to take her with them. Again there is no romance in this, because the road is rough and Davidson is isolated by her inability to communicate with those who have welcomed her. The lack of communication means false starts and improper handling of gear. She doesn't sleep because of the sheep pressing against her cot and falls into helpless exhaustion. She is stared at where ever she goes, pointed out and hounded as the white stranger, the white, European alien. And despite her loneliness, she is never alone, always surrounded to the point that she longs for the open deserts of Australia, where she was allowed the solitude to reconnect with herself.

Cultural confusion abounds. As just one example, many of the Indian people she meets cannot understand why a rich person like her, who has the immeasurable wealth to afford car, would want to walk along the ground like peasant, while Davidson could not grasp the complacency of the cast system, which required her to sit idle and be served instead of doing things herself.

However, Davidson also becomes family with the group of Ribari she travels with. They bring her into their world, welcome her, and care for her. She does the same for them.

Do not yourself approach this book with your own romantic ideas of India, of bright colors. This is not an easy book to read. It a brutal journey, both physically as well as emotionally. Davidson is so beaten down by poverty and red tape and physical sickness and irritations big and small (from a horror of a camel guide to her own camels trying to kill her), that she comes to a state of alternating absolutes -- both hating and loving India with deep and virulent passion.

But just as there are moment of outrage and ugliness, Desert Places also contains moments of joy and laughter, beauty and compassion, of generosity and kindness.

If Davidson were a hair less of the fantastic writer she is, the book would not work, but fortunately she's wonderful and the book, though full of rough edges laying in wait to snare, is too. If nothing else, it will certainly make you think.
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