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Joyful Girl

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


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Books Completed in August
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1. The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir by Wenguang Huang
2. Horns, by Joe Hill
3. Paper Valentine, by Brenna Yovanoff
4. Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray
5. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (audio book), by Lisa See
6. A Blackbird Sings: a book of short poems, edited Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita Thompson
7. No Roses for Harry! by Gene Zion
8. Unnatural Creatures, edited by Neil Gaiman
9. Emiko Superstar, written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Steve Rolston
10. Wave (audio book), by Sonali Deraniyagala

REVIEWS:

1. The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir by Wenguang Huang
This was a compelling tale about a grandmother's request for a traditional burial. Seems simple enough, but at the time in China, the cultural revolution of the communist party was trying to eradicate old traditions considered bourgeois. Burials were outlawed and cremation without ceremony was mandated. Having a traditional burial could mean ruin for an entire family. But in the face of this risk, Huang's father attempts to appease his mother's wishes.

This book is fascinating and well written; the complex issues of tradition and family and devotion to politics are expressed brilliantly. Huang reveals the contradictory nature of people, revealing the humanity (capable of making mistakes) of his family in a spectacular way. Great book.


2. Horns, by Joe Hill
To hunt a monster do you have to become a monster?

After Iggy's girlfriend and true love is raped and murdered everybody assumes he did it, though no charges were made against him. He lives for a year in his own lonely purgatory. One night he goes on a bender and wakes with no memory of what happened and a set of horns growing out of his forehead.

I'd say the first part of the book is the hardest to read, because it shows a certain baseness of humanity as he tries to figure out why horns are growing out of his head, because with the horns comes the ability to influence people. And every person he meets suddenly feels compelled to tell him their worst fantasies and most grotesque desires, and ask him for permission to act on them. It's very disturbing to read, especially with how little we know the characters in the beginning.

But this is where Hill's skill comes into play as he adds layers and layers to the story and the characters. He develops Iggy and Merrin's relationship beautifully, making what happens to them matter. And even as he's unearthing ugliness and raw hurt, he's also revealing the humanity beyond that, the compassion and love and forgiveness and bravery.

This novel is morally ambiguous, a book in which the devil can be kind. It's sometimes funny, often disturbing, and well wrought. This isn't horror that focuses on chills up your spine, but it will make you squirm.

I would recommend it, but with warnings. Some of the ugliness is hard to read and there is the rape, while not graphic (Hill leaves out much of it, instead of reveling, and what little he leaves in is purposeful and important for the story), is still disturbing. So keep that in mind before reading.


3. Paper Valentine, by Brenna Yovanoff
Hannah is haunted. Her best friend, Lilian, self destructed and died six months ago. Lilian lingers, and only Hannah can see her. As Hannah struggles to find out where she fits in the world and tries not to think about the surprisingly kind delinquent Finney Boone, a string of murders begin to occur, with each girl linked only by a paper valentine. At Lilian's urging, she begins to look into the murders and put together the pieces in the hopes of stopping him before it happens again.

As with her other books, Yovanoff presents complex and interesting characters. The plot isn't so much about hunting a killer as it is about navigating life after a loss and being unable to let go of someone you love. Hannah manages to be sad, while putting on a brave face, tries to be a good daughter and sister and friend, tries to pretend things are what they were, while the reality is that they can never be the same. Another great book from Yovanoff.


4. Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray
A plane crashes on a deserted island, leaving over a dozen of the surviving beauty queens to fend for themselves. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but what unfolds is a fun, charming story about girls coming together and discovering their own sense of self. It's also a satire on the corporate perception of women and body image that had me snort with laughter more than once.

After the plane crashes, the first beauty queen we are introduced to is Adina, news reporter and feminist with an agenda. One might assume as I did that Adina was going to be a the voice of reason amid the group, the knowledgeable one who teaches the dumb, superficial beauties about how to be stronger more intelligent women. But Libba Bray doesn't fall into this trope, and instead gives each girl a heart and a bit of soul, and lets them discover that they have their own voice as they climb out of the box the world wants to put them in. It's shown that while Adina represents one form of female empowerment, it's not the only form.

There are some genuine and wonderful moments in this book and Libba balances the satire with the character development well. The most heavy handed moments are perhaps the "commercial breaks" and "footnote" and such that come for our loving sponsor, The Corporation, each of which sketches out TV commercials and reality shows movie plots and products, drawing out the normal to the extreme for humor. It's clear we're meant to see the real world reflected and to take note and question much of the media that many accept as normal. I wouldn't say this book is very deep. It's a bit too fluffy to be deep, sometimes satirizing what seems the obvious (though perhaps some of it might represent new realizations for a teenage girl).

But fluffy or deep, and whatever flaws, this was a fast and brilliantly fun read.


5. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (audio book), by Lisa See
Lisa See presents a vivid portrayal of intimate friendship between two girls, Lily and Snow Flower. Each girl is destined for a very different life from other, but throughout the misfortunes and sorrows, they stay side by side and even find forgiveness in the face of terrible mistakes.

The language is quite vivid and See brings to life a culture and a time that is rather different from the one in which I live. It's not presented as strange, just as the normal instances of life, which is what it was for girls in China in the 1800s. I think one of the most difficult things to have described in the book is the foot binding the girls must endure to become women, with the toes curling back and the bones eventually breaking (I did a lot of cringing).

I don't know that I fully resonated with this book; it's hard to see characters you love make terrible mistakes and hurting those they love. But life is like that sometimes and sometimes you have to live with the errors and make what small restitution you can. A beautiful story nonetheless.


6. A Blackbird Sings: a book of short poems, edited Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita Thompson
Note: This anthology contains my poem, "Bird Collides with Window," so take this review with as big of a grain of salt as you want.

A small stone is a short piece of writing that vividly captures a moment or reveals something beautiful in an everyday event. This anthology is a compilation of such small stones from the editor's e-zine, A Handful of Stones.

Divided into three sections, the first section is an essay that presents a theoretical look at what small stones are and gives insight into how the editors selected the poems that appear in this book. Kasipalita explains that in each small stone, they were looking for Truth, Beauty, Love, and Freshness and explains how they define these generalized terms. It was an interesting essay, which I rather enjoyed reading and works well as an introduction.

The second section is made up of the poems in a variety of forms, from a single line capturing a moment to haiku to bits of evocative prose. The tone ranges from tend to humorous to wistful and everything in between. While I didn't connect with every poem, many showed just how just a few of the right words can vividly evoke an encounter or make you look at an everyday object in a whole new way — a plastic bag in the wind, water in a dirty gutter, an insect — and see them as beautiful.

The final section of the book is a brief introduction to writing small stones over the course of seven days. It has some good ideas in there, but was perhaps too brief and might have benefited from a bit more development. I suppose it would be useful to those new to form, however.

Overall, I'd say this is a wonderful little book, one of which I am pleased and proud to be a part.


7. No Roses for Harry! by Gene Zion
My Review: No Roses for Harry! is a childhood favorite of mine. When Harry the white dog with black spots receives a knitted sweater from Grandma with roses on it, he plots to get rid of it if he can. The art is fun an playful and the story that unfolds is adorable with a wonderful surprise at the end.

My Niece's Review: This was one of her birthday gifts when she turned one year old and she loved it! She kept pointing at Harry and squeeled as I told the story. Toward the end she was a bit antsy (because she's one) and wanted to hold the book herself, which I was happy to let her do, so she could look at the pages like a big girl.

Reading No Roses for Harry! (My sisters and my childhood favorite and hopefully hers.) #book #booklove


8. Unnatural Creatures, edited by Neil Gaiman
This anthology of stories, edited by Neil Gaiman, features an array of strange creatures, from mermaids and griffins to creatures that bear no name. This is a fantastic collection with a diverse set of authors representing a wide array of styles and stories. I can't think of a single story in the collection that I didn't like, as they were all enjoyable to some degree. A few of my favorites are listed below.

Gahan Wilson's story (which has an image for a title and it therefore both unspellable and unpronounceable) is a delightful creepy tale about a spot that appear on the dinning room table one day, a spot that mysteriously grows and moves when you're not looking.

E. Lily Yu's "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" presents great world building, showing the complex governmental systems of the bees and wasps. Though the creatures are small, the tale is epic in scope.

In "Ozioma the Wicked" by Nnedi Okorafor, Ozioma is a young girl who has the ability to speak to snakes, which makes her an outcast in her village. At least until the day when her gift become very useful.

"Moveable Beast" by Maria Dahvana Headley — Angela lives in a town with with a forest in the center that houses a beast. Everything is fine, at least until a beast collector shows up in town to complicate things. Great story.

Larry Niven's "The Flight of the Horse" mixed time travel and mythology. Woohoo! Lots of fun and had me laughing.

"The Manticore, the Mermaid and Me" by Megan Kurashige offers the reader assembled creatures. I have chills just thinking about how it all turned out. Loved it.

Spies, Nazis, and werewolves, "The Compleat Werewolf" by Anthony Boucher felt like a '40s noir novel and was a lot of fun.

"Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson — The creatures in this one were most unusual. Who knew a harmless looking bicycle shop could be such a frightening place?


9. Emiko Superstar, written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Steve Rolston
Emily is a lonely geek, who discovered the Freak Factory, a dumpy, garbage strewn hangout, where people come to perform and let their weirdness shine. Enamored by the dancer Poppy, Emily finds courage to take the stage and become Emiko the superstar, even if only for a short while.

This is definitely a young adult comic/graphic novel with a simple, uplifting storyline. It's not deep and there is no sense of complexity. But it's a well put together story and Emily is likeable. And like Emily, I could fall in love with Poppy and her sense of freedom, too. The art style also supports it well and I like that a variety of body types are shown.

Steve Rolston's Pencils from Emiko: Superstar


10. Wave (audio book), by Sonali Deraniyagala
"On the morning of December 26,2004, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the tsunami she miraculously survived."

This memoir is a heartbreaking and brave account of her grief following this tragic event, from the first years of nearly incompacitated shock through slow painful healing into a place where she can live the memory of this she loved and lost. Frank and lyrically told, this story was tragic to read, but also beautifully wrought and loving. Not and easy thing to read about, but really fantastic.