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Joyful Girl

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


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Books Read in November
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1. The Gaslight Dogs, by Karin Lowachee
2. My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland
3. Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
4. Shine, by Lauren Myracle
5. Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word, edited by Toni Morisson
6. Goliath, by Scott Westerfeld
7. How Long, poems by Ron Padgett
8. Kissing Kate, by Lauren Myracle


REVIEWS:

1. The Gaslight Dogs, by Karin Lowachee
Amazon Product Description: "At the edge of the known world, an ancient nomadic tribe faces a new enemy-an Empire fueled by technology and war. A young spiritwalker of the Aniw and a captain in the Ciracusan army find themselves unexpectedly thrown together. The Aniw girl, taken prisoner from her people, must teach the reluctant soldier a forbidden talent -- one that may turn the tide of the war and will surely forever brand him an outcast.

From the rippling curtains of light in an Arctic sky, to the gaslit cobbled streets of the city, war is coming to the frozen north. Two people have a choice that will decide the fates of nations -- and may cast them into a darkness that threatens to bring destruction to both their peoples."


This is a vision of an alternate world that presents wild west style frontier very similar to our own historical west. It presents a group of colonizing whites, who are at conflict with the native population. Lowachee does an excellent job of portraying both perspectives, showing how the differences in cultural perspectives are at the heart of the conflict. They don't understand each other and why they live the way they live.

She does this by writing both from the perspective of Sjenn, the Aniw spiritwalker, and Captain Jarret Fawle of the Ciracusan army, and she treats both of them as complicated, messy, uncertain human beings, who have their own motives and desires that are influenced and driven by their own cultures. They are forced to work with each other by General Fawle, Jarret's father. Neither is happy with working with each other, both are forced to participate, and the tension between them never truly eases completely.

Another important character, which the back of the book description leaves out is Keeley, a Wishishian warrior. (That's another thing that's great about this book. There are many different tribes, each of which have their own unique history and cultural heritage.) Keeley works for General Fawle, hired to watch over Sjenn and Jarret. He is Soreganee warrior who was partially raised by Ciracusan's. He's a man who hold on to his native heritage, while living amongst the Ciracusans. He's a more mysterious character in the book, but the author subtly add complexity to this character, and he is as vital a character to as either Sjenn or Jarret.

The Gaslight Dogs started out slow, but by the third chapter I was completely absorbed, and by the time I reached the end, I was begging for more. While there are definitely threads left untied (leaving room for a book two), the book manages to end on a satisfactory note and feels complete in and of itself.


2. My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland
Angel considers herself a looser. She has an alcoholic dad, lives in a junky white trash trailer, dropped out of high school, has no job, and pops pills. Life has kicked her in the gut and she's wallowed in it for years.

But after waking up in the hospital from an apparent overdose, Angel finds a note ordering to work at the town morgue with the threat of jail hanging over her head if she doesn't. Work at the morgue is gross, but going fine, except for the fact that she now has a craving for brains and just when bodies are showing up headless.

Yeah, so Angel is a zombie, and she's also a pretty awesome character. She's complex and interesting, and she has a humor about things most of the time. Life has run her down, so she has a tendency to through self-pity parties, but she doesn't linger on them so long that it drags down the text. She's got a lot to struggle with, so I'm comfortable with her process of coming to terms with and taking control of her life.

I also like how the author has taken an interest in how dead bodies work. Maybe I'm weird, but that's kind of interesting science (especially after reading Stiff, by Mary Roach, which I'm I'm guessing the author read, too). It's a well put together and fun novel with well created mystery. It's not blatantly obvious who the killer is right away and I like how it all unveils.


3. Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
Following the events of The Hunger Games, Katniss is in danger. Her actions in the games were seen as revolutionary by the Capital, which puts everyone she knows in danger. Furthermore, as she makes her victory parade through the districts, it becomes clear that there is unrest among the people, making her position even more precarious.

I picked up this book one night, intending to just read one chapter and ended up reading two thirds of the book before I finally gave into my need for sleep. Collins does horrible things to her characters and it makes for excellent reading. It helps that she writes characters who you care about, like Katniss, who is both so strong and brave -- not because she's not scared, but because she holds her ground even though she is -- and yet to human and flawed. Or like Haymitch, who is a drunken bastard, but also more sly and clever than anyone imagines. And so on.

I'm not saying that Catching Fire is a perfect book, but it is definitely a quick pulse-pounding read.


4. Shine, by Lauren Myracle
From the author's website: "When her best guy friend falls victim to a vicious hate crime, sixteen-year-old Cat sets out to discover who in her small town did it. Richly atmospheric, this daring mystery mines the secrets of a tightly knit Southern community and examines the strength of will it takes to go against everyone you know in the name of justice.

Against a backdrop of poverty, clannishness, drugs, and intolerance, Myracle has crafted a harrowing coming-of-age tale couched in a deeply intelligent mystery. Smart, fearless, and compassionate, this is an unforgettable work from a beloved author."

This is an honest and moving story, and Cat is a captivating character. She starts out broken, cut-off from life and living in a self-imposed exile. It takes the shock of the brutal beating of her best friend Patrick to draw her out of her shell.

One of the things I appreciate about this book is that Myracle allows layers. The line between good and evil is blurred, and each of the characters in this book has capacity for both. Every one in this book is human and flawed. Redemption is available to everyone; it merely takes the will and courage to reach for it and keep working for it.

Elegant prose brings rich life to this small town in the South, which is desperate and lonely and sometimes very beautiful, much like this book.


5. Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word, edited by Toni Morisson
This collection of essays, edited by Toni Morison, present varying points of view on censorship and the power of literature in the world. One that sticks out in my mind is Pico Iyer's "The Man, The Men at the Station," the story of how he met a trishaw driver in Mandalay, who shares with him a book he wrote and must keep secret.

I also quite enjoyed "The Sudden Sharp Memory," by Ed Park, which looks at the banning of the book I am the Cheese and its real and imagined effect on students.

Though a few are a bit dense and perhaps overly complex, all the essays in this book present fascinating points of view, and all are very well written.


6. Goliath, by Scott Westerfeld
Goliath finishes off this trilogy and Alek and Deryn's storyline. The Leviathan finds itself leaving the Ottoman Empire and on a journey to Siberia to rescue a strange scientist, who claims to have a means of stopping the war. Also, certain secrets are revealed.

I like the inclusion of certain historical figures in this one, including Hearst (the famous newspaperman), Pancho Villa, and, my personal favorite, Nicola Tesla. It's a lot of fun to read Westerfeld's interpretations of real historical figures and to see how they fit into the plot (which is quite naturally).

This is an excellent and satisfying ending to the series, which maintains the quality of the first two books. Deryn is as daring and brave as ever, and Alek is likewise, though in different ways, as he's more tied to politics. I love both these characters and I'm a bit sad that it's all over. Though there is opportunity for the two to have further adventures should Westerfeld wish to return to this world, which I hope he does someday.


7. How Long, poems by Ron Padgett
There are many reasons why Ron Padgett is one of my all-time favorite poets, and at the top of the list is his playful witty approach to otherwise serious situations and events. Reading his work, I have the impression of a man in love with life and laughter, despite the occasional downs that come along. Padgett cartwheels through stanzas and parades words through lines, often skipping through a variety of potential meanings and coming to unexpected conclusions. How Long is no exception to this and is a fun, thoughtful look at growing into adulthood.


8. Kissing Kate, by Lauren Myracle
During a party one night, Lissa is surprised when her best friend Kate leans in to kiss, but even more surprised by Kate's reaction when Lissa kisses her back. Now abandoned by her best friend, Lissa has to try to figure out what that kiss meant and what it means about who she is now.

Kissing Kate is a simple and sweet story. Lissa is kind of lost, without really realizing just how lost she is, because she doesn't wallow in it. She doesn't rage or become rebellious; she doesn't turn to drinking or to over-dramatic displays of emotion. Rather, she goes about the business of her life, school, work, and along the way she puts the pieces of herself together. This simple and personal act of self-searching is what drives the story.

There are layers to the story, of course, side characters who present new friendships and their own life challenges. Each character is in their own journey of self discovery, or figuring out what it means to be themselves in the world. It's not an easy journey and the answers are subtle and subdued. Figuring out the answers result in new questions, which really just proves that self-discovery is an ongoing process that can be enjoyable as it is challenging.
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