Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Conquest - Yxta Maya Murray

The Conquest was published in 2002.  Despite a love of multi-cultural literature developing in earnest about that time, I had never heard of the novel or its author, Yxta Maya Murray, until I picked the work up at a used bookstore over a year ago.  (Have I mentioned that my TBR pile could easily claim its own room?!?)

Yxta is a law professor at Loyola.  Her first novel was published in 1998.  Her latest, A Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Kidnapped, was published in 2010.  As of today’s date, there are six novels in her canon and it would appear her fiction has been replaced by scholarly pieces on constitutionalism, rape, and violence.  The Conquest was her first foray into historical fiction, but she did not commit 100%.  In all honesty, there is so much about this novel that is deliciously amazing but it’s still not quite there.  Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed the story – but it’s almost like ordering dinner and finding it good but knowing a little more seasoning would send it over the top.

I think I connected to the main character, Sara Rosario Gonzales, because I personally have had to face my own life while hunting for the identity of an author of a dusty manuscript.  (My search for Hannah Crafts was brief but it has marked me for life.)  Sara is a rare book restorer who works at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  A dusty 16th century manuscript finds its way to her desk to be restored.  The story of an Aztec princess (named Helen by her captors) enslaved and sent to Europe to entertain the likes of the pope and Charles V as a juggler is considered by scholars to be the work of a monk.  Sara is to restore it, but she finds herself made mad by her quest to prove the identity of the woman who penned it.

The manuscript, which Sara has named “The Conquest,” is provided in bursts of passages while Sara’s own love story unfolds.  Truth be told, I don’t like Sara and I don’t care for her love story.  The sections about her and Karl annoyed me as I eagerly awaited more of Helen’s story.  Sara’s hunt to prove The Conquest was written by a woman is at the heart of the novel.  There’s an intensifying suspense as she checks other historical references, using passages from the manuscript as clues to point her in the right direction.  The life of a painter said to be madly in love with the exotic princess.  Does she show in his work?  The written works of others from the Church, written in secret and not for public consumption, did these tales of sex and gluttony reveal the dark-skinned beauty.  Does she find her way into his journals full of food and scandalous affairs?

As Sara’s love life unravels, she resigns herself to the fact that Helen is fictional and indeed the shocking tale of women loving women and made “mad” by poetry, and pirates and obsidian daggers, and juggling spheres that can stop the Pope’s heart is nothing more than fiction penned the monk it has been attributed to by scholars.  Defeated in love and life, she catalogues the work.  She curses the manuscript for having ruined her life as she has lost Karl, seemingly for good.  She contemplates setting the ancient pages ablaze, but she could never hurt a book.  (I understand that sentiment!)  Then, at her lowest of lows, a letter from 1561, a love letter of course, makes it all worth it.

The novel is a love story that crosses ages and time.  It’s Helen moving heaven and earth for her true love, Caterina, and being blinded by her desire for revenge against Cortez.  It’s Sara spending every waking hour trying to breathe life into a manuscript and a woman no one believes existed in her quest to remember her mother.  Yes, this is a love story between Sara and her mother – Karl was an unnecessary distraction and Yxta didn’t flesh out the mother/daughter relationship the way I would have liked, but it’s a love story all the same.  Helen won’t be forgotten.  And neither will Beatrice.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - A Play by Jack Thorne

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Play by: Jack Thorne
Based on on original story by J.K Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

I intentionally left Rowling out of my title, because Rowling was largely left out of the script.  For something that bills itself as "the eighth story. Nineteen years later," Harry Potter and the Cursed Child reads more like fan fiction turned play than something crafted entirely by Rowling.  Part of the issue is the fact it is NOT A NOVEL.  I knew that when it was published.  I wasn't one of the disappointed readers who lost their wands over the play format.  I knew what I was getting into.  What I had suspected but didn't know for sure until I read the play was that Harry Potter's world is best viewed with Rowling's words.  The play is but bones of dialogue that desperately need to be fleshed out (and by Rowling) to fully join the Harry Potter canon.

There I said it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a controversial topic among Potter-heads, muggle-born, and the magically inclined.  And for good reason - it simply doesn't fit and it's lacking in the magic.  Would this review be the same had I seen Noma Dumezweni breathe life into Hermione?  Or if I had witnessed Anthony Boyle in one of the more interesting roles of the play?  I honestly don't think it would.  Because there are glints of the magic within the script that would shine on stage.  And oh how I want to see it.  Because the magic of the play itself would allow me to move past parts of the plot that don't mesh with the Hogwarts I love.  

As for the plot, the idea that Albus would decide his mission in life was to save Cedric Diggory seems too much like holding on to the past, but that's the idea: Harry cannot escape his past and neither can his children.  Speaking of children, I don't much mind that Voldemort had a child.  The books imply a dark, sexual tension between him and Bellatrix. Delphi, whose name itself foreshadows the prophecies to come, is a curiosity.  How did Potter not sense something dark when he was in the same room with He Who Must Not Be Named's offspring?  Had he gone soft since the Battle of Hogwarts?  

And who is the cursed child?  There are a few vying for the title.

Harry Potter AKA The Boy Who Lived
    - He is forever scarred by his past and it truly marks everything he does and everyone he loves, Albus included

Albus Severus Potter
   - Named for two great men and the child of the Boy Who Lived, he never asked to be a Potter.  Expectations weigh too heavily on him.  He is lonely.  (I was horribly disappointed in how his siblings failed to assist him - the Weasleys were a lovingly, large family where siblings looked out for each other - why didn't James, Albus and Lily have that connection?)

Scorpius Malfoy
    - The Son of a Death Eater who is, in many ways, a male version of Hermione.  A lonely boy, he buries his mother early in the script.  He is nothing like Draco, much like Albus is nothing like Harry.

   - Daughter of Bellatrix and Voldemort.  Her father was the Dark Lord she'd never meet (without the aid of some dark and rightly banned magic) and her mother was crazy and locked up for eternity.  She was raised by Death Eaters who didn't care for her.  An orphan, her search for answers and family love & approval mirrors that of Harry's so many years ago.  My money is on her.  Harry has love.  Albus has love. Scorpius has love.  There is no one to love Delphi.  There is no father to tell her he's proud.  No mother to appreciate the strength of her talents.  She is truly the cursed one.

Also, what to make of the fact Rowling ended book seven with  "All was well" when things are so very, very, very far from "well" in the Cursed Child.  

Crossposted on The Barking Bitch

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Isabel Allende - Maya's Notebook

Maya's Notebook

Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Originally published in Spanish as El Cuaderno de Maya in Spain in 2011

The English translation of Isabel Allende's Maya's Notebook was published in 2013.  Surprisingly, I found it in a bargain bin a year or so ago.  It's been sitting patiently in my TBR pile since then.  (We do not discuss how quickly that pile is growing.  I'm just excited to finally be back to reading.  Not reading was like forgetting how to be me.)  Some of you know that I have a love of so-called "multicultural" books, and Allende is one of my favorites.  (The House of Spirits, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and My Invented Country in particular.)  Maya's Notebook is no exception; Allende is a master story-teller and she uses words in such a brilliant way to paint some remarkable characters and settings.

The novel opens in 2009, a week after Maya's grandmother, Nini, spirited Maya off to Chiloe in Chile.  The novel is in first person, written as a journal from a broken girl whose road to recovery lies in memories - both the good and bad.  The reader quickly learns that Maya has been sent to Chiloe for her own protection.  Why she needs protection isn't so readily revealed as Allende, through Maya's journal entries, crosses spaces of time and countries seamlessly keeping the reader engaged in the 19 year old's story without giving an abundance of backstory at a pop.  What starts as a very self-absorbed tale of a 19 year old, albeit a scarred one, quickly becomes the story of a country, of a people, and of a family that cannot be bound by words.  As Maya becomes more comfortable with herself and her surroundings, the entries include more details of her past.

Allende takes us from the privileged streets of Berkeley, to a beautiful rehabilitation center in Oregon where Maya is tasked with caring for vicunas.  "...two slender animals with upright ears and the flirtatious eyelashes of a bride."  Maya stays with the program out of concern for the animals:  "I had to postpone my escape: the vicunas needed me."  From Oregon, Maya is taken on a hitch-hiking ride to hell with a trucker from Tennessee who says grace over breakfast after drugging and raping her, using his penis and the barrel of a gun to exert his dominance.  The rape is her fare, or so she learns.  This passage in particular is hard to stomach.  The passage left my stomach in knots and a tightness settled in my jaw when reading it.  As for Maya, it took many an entry into her journal and a lot of time in Chiloe to heal, before she could reveal the heartbreaking journey that left her in the care of Brandon Leeman, a hardened drug dealer, and his cohorts in Vegas.  In Sin City, Maya spiraled out of control.  By the time she realized what she'd become, she'd found it too late and too embarrassing to call her Nini for rescue.  When her criminal benefactor is murdered by his own men, Maya's life of luxury is gone.  Running for her life and quickly withdrawing from the ample substances he'd gotten her hooked on, Maya turns to prostitution.  But Leeman's criminal dealings and Maya's involvement in and knowledge of them have made the streets of Vegas deadly; Maya wasn't just another addict, she was the key to a fortune.  In time, the reader learns that Maya was sent to Chiloe because of Leeman's murder, dirty cops, and a storage facility with half a million dollars that only she knows the location of.  Thanks to the heart of gold druggie, Freddy, and the Widows for Jesus, she is saved.  Nini and Mike O'Kelly make the drive from California to take Maya back to rehab.  She tells them of the storage unit.  Mike and Nini are comically involved in a group called the Club of Criminals - this comes into play as they use their knowledge to plot Maya's escape from the States and to destroy the money and the counterfeiting plates found in the storage unit.

Those are the events that led Maya to Chiloe, and while their action may drive the novel, the pace of the Chiloen sections, the descriptions of the people and their own skeletons (child abuse, incest, the scars of the Pinochet dictatorship and the interrogations and disappearances that marked the '70s) give the story life. Maya learns why her grandmother was forced to leave Chile, what happened to Nini's first husband, and why the stranger in Chiloe, who hasn't seen her Nini in decades, was so willing to take her in like a stray dog.  Maya learns who she is.

Interesting note for me: dogs are featured pretty heavily in this novel.  From Daisy, the tiny pup Maya had as a little girl whose memory helps Maya get over her first heartbreak, to the dogs trained by Susan, her father's wife, to the purebred dogs signaling social class to Fahkeen, the stray described as "a cross between German shepherd and a fox terrier" who appears on page 15 and becomes a much-adored pet who saves her life.  It's interesting what Allende does with animals in this novel - particularly the dogs.

Maya's Notebook is a Bildungsroman, and Maya's journey is as painful as it is beautiful.  I can't recommend Allende or this novel enough, but I will say that some passages and descriptions may be too intense for some readers.  Happy reading!  You'll fall in love with Chiloe almost as quickly as Fahkeen fell in love with Maya.

**Cross-posted on The Barking Bitch!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Mime Order - Samantha Shannon

Back in October, I reviewed Samantha Shannon's first published novel and the first in a proposed seven book series.  You may remember that I was head-over heals in love with both the story and the writer.  (Literary crush and all that jazz with a touch of jealousy.)  The Bone Season was brilliant - I have not changed my mind.  And Shannon can spin one hell of a yarn. 

I am always wary of sophomore attempts, especially in series, and I can be quite harsh in my reviews of them.  Contracts, agents, demanding publishing companies, etc. can all work together to push a work out before its time, so I was a little worried about The Mime Order.  My concerns didn't stop me, however, from placing my order and eagerly awaiting the mailman to drop that large hardback with its red cover in my paws.

It was beautiful.  Heavy.  Stunning cover.  Smelled of a fresh printing.  I couldn't wait to open it up and through myself head and heart first back in Scion.  But life and work got in the way until that gorgeous book was collecting dust on my nightstand.  A few months ago, I dusted it off and snuggled up to it, pulling a near all-nighter.  I have no regrets.

The Mime Order is just as beautifully crafted, though grittier/uglier, as The Bone Season.  Paige continues to grow as an independent woman who literally battles her demons. She spends much of the novel covered in blood and/or bruises, but shows herself to be extremely resourceful and one badass woman.  (Can Ronda Rousey play her in the movie, please?!?)

The love connection with the Warden (yes, he's BACK!!!) and Nick's relationship can seem a bit off-putting, especially when juxtaposed to "to the death" fight scenes, but that's part of what makes this fantastical novel relatable.  Life doesn't stop or hit pause for love - you squeeze in it when and where you can.

Much like The Bone Season's review, I don't want to say too much because this book is simply too delicious to spoil.

Monday, June 15, 2015

I received an advanced reader’s edition of When the Moon is Low by Nadia Hashimi through The Reading Room.  (Yay! Books!)  With my background in multicultural literature, I was thrilled to get this story set in Kabul by an Afghan American.  This was a story that wanted to be told and a story I wanted to read.

On a whole, Hashimi attempts too much.  She can’t seem to decide if the story is, as billed on the blurb, the story of Fereiba who flees her home with her three children after the rise of the Taliban, or the story of Fereiba’s eldest, who owns a story of survival separate from that of his mother.  Each story is valid, vivid and strong.  Yet, by telling Saleem’s story, she’s done Fereiba a disservice and vice versa.  Don’t get me wrong – Hashimi is a very talented writer – but this novel has an identity crisis -- She cannot do both.

Fereiba’s story is much more compelling than Saleem’s I eagerly found myself awaiting her voice to return in Part Two of the novel.  Where did the woman who taught classes in secret until the families no longer sent the girls go?  What happened to a voice that was loud, clear and full of survival?  In Part Two, Fereiba is rendered mute just as effectively as Samira.  Hashimi went to great lengths to paint Fereiba in the vibrant colors of strength, courage, love and grace.  Then, as Saleem rose to manhood, her colors dulled, her ability to think for herself vanished, and she became a shell of the woman I’d so come to admire in Part One.  I wanted to see her journey.  Though it was less treacherous due to the travel documents, the journey was difficult both physically and emotionally - I wanted to know how this STRONG woman handled it.  Hashimi seems to gloss over this with a brush her hand, clearly favoring the seemingly more drama-packed story of Saleem.

Saleem’s story is a classic Bildungsroman with a multicultural slant.  While his section is interesting, it annoyed me because his mother’s journey, with her children, was nearly entirely abandoned for nearly every (if not all) horrible thing a migrant/refugee could possibly face on his journey.  The human trafficking section was like being hit over the head and told “this is wrong.”  Show me.  Don’t tell me.  Just a hint of the horrors Mimi faced and how she wound up working the streets would have proven more effective.  In the same vein, the drug trafficking seemed an afterthought and a poorly developed one at that.  Again, just hinting that Saleem was transporting drugs would have been enough, though, quite frankly, the section does not carry the novel forward in anyway other than physically getting him closer to his destination.  Mimi at least served as a little more; she represents the moment he “became a man.”

By the end of the novel, I didn’t care if Saleem made it across the channel to rejoin his family.  I was frustrated that the book was over and Fereiba, the woman I’d grown to love in a brief one hundred or so pages, never returned with the same heart that beat on first half of the book.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Divergent Trilogy - Veronica Roth

I wanted to finish the series before putting pen to paper on this one.  Conclusion: it's not a poorly written dystopian YA set.  (Interestingly enough, why is so much YA lit these days dystopian in nature?  Does it indicate a dissatisfaction among our youth with how the world is working?  Do they fear the decline in society that is ever apparent in dystopian works?)  It certainly is an active-paced edge of your seat read.  And it didn't make me angry.  That's always a plus.

The first of the trilogy, Divergent, was published in 2011.  It readily sets up the world of factions: Dauntless - the bad-ass, thrill seeking lot who use brute strength and fear to maintain power and control.  Abnegation - the selfless bunch who govern.  Candor - those that hold truth above all else.  Erudite - the intellectuals.  Amity - the peace-loving hippies who grow the natural resources (and have a peace serum that is fed to the folks daily - yep.  they are drugged.)  And then there are the factionless, people who couldn't neatly fit in a box or did not pass the initiation into their chosen factions.  (Yes, you get to choose your faction - it does not choose you.)  The factionless are the lowest of the low, destined to do the "dirty jobs" no one else wants.  Being factionless isn't exactly what people strive toward.

While you get to chose your faction, individuals are given an aptitude test when they are 16.  The test is destined to indicate what faction they are best suited for.  Those that do not neatly fit in a faction-box are considered "Divergent."  A word that's whispered in hushed tones.  Those who are Divergent, if they are lucky, find someone in their lives who tells them that they must hide the fact they are Divergent.  Those that aren't lucky, are killed (or extracted, but more on that later.)

One of the many tasks of Dauntless is to patrol the fence.  To keep the residents in or something else out seems to be the question that's touched on very early on in the trilogy, but for the most part, the "outside" does not factor into the first book, which focuses on Beatrice Prior, Abnegation-born, who chooses Dauntless after learning she is Divergent.  This choice means she abandons her family.  Her brother similarly abandons the family by choosing Erudite, leaving Beatrice initially confused as her brother had seemed annoyingly selfless his entire life.  (Little tidbits of memories reveal the clues of his thirst for knowledge and makes Beatrice realize she should have known.)

Beatrice changes her name to Tris.  With a serious chip on her shoulder, she sets out to prove that she is Dauntless through and through.  But Dauntless isn't just power and brute force - they are cruel, selfish, and much like rabid dogs.  Eat or be eaten.  A large number don't survive the initiation - both by choice and design.  Tris is almost killed by her "new" family.  Another guy loses an eye.  Yet a third commits suicide.  And that's just her initiation class.

Of course she falls in love with the Dauntless eye-candy who is tasked with assisting in the initiation.  He too was Abnegation-born.  He too changed his name.  He too had something to prove.  Tobias became Four, a nickname born of the fact he only has four fears.  His father beat the hell out of him and his mother when he was a child.  When his mother "died," he took the brunt of his father's anger - an anger that was well-hidden from the rest of the world - what goes on behind picket fences and all.  He fled his father.  (His father and his father's fists were one of the four fears.)  His relationship with his parents and his relationship Tris span all three books.  The romantic relationship has all the growing pain of a normal relationship - they fight over lies, trust, and jealousy.  And let's just say this is no Bella and Edward relationship (thank goodness!)  The relationship with his parents is perhaps more interesting.

Long story short - the Dauntless are put under a "serum" that makes them mindless killing machines.  They attack Abnegation, as they are ordered to do.  Those who are Divergent are immune.  Tris and Tobias seek to thwart the attack.  They are unsuccessful and Tobias is captured.  Tris has to save him.  And the world.  Talk about an ass-kicking girl.  She does.  She breaks the simulation.  The attack stops.  The world of factions is forever shattered.

Insurgent shows a world where trust is rare, even between Tris and Four.  More fighting.  More people dying.  More physical intimacy between Tris and Four.  (Is it sex?  Is it not sex?)  Betrayal.  Faction before blood and all that jazz.  A video is played, a video Erudite sought to hide and Abnegation sought to reveal, showing that they were purposely placed there and that the Divergent are the key to saving the world.  (Cue dramatic music.)  Tris gets to be a hero again.  (I really stopped liking her much in this novel.)

Allegiant is written from both Tris and Four's POVs, in an alternating fashion.  I found this unacceptable and jarring - their voices are simply to similar.  Had the other books been drafted that way or had the voices been different, maybe I wouldn't have been as annoyed.  (I'm convinced she only did this so she could detail the death scene and the aftermath.)  Tris, Four and the rest of their motley crew make it outside the fence.  More dead people end up being alive.  (Neat little trick!)  They learn they were but a science experiment.  The battle isn't between the factions, the battle is between the "genetically pure" and the "genetically damaged."  (Plot twist: Tris is GP while Four is GD.)  There are some interesting things going in this book - of note is how the GP have been convinced that wars are only the product of GDs, even though GPs created the GDs.  History has been erased.  (Oklahoma and the AP history debacle anyone?)  More people die.  Tris learns her mother had been born in the Fringe and "planted" into the factions to "fix" the problem of Erudite killing Divergents.  She learns about the big bad world.  She flies in a plane.  And she decides to play hero again.  Her actions may make her character appear to come full circle - the selfless acts of Abnegation in sacrificing herself instead of her brother (who did some pretty crappy things), but it wasn't selflessness.  It was pride.  Tris wanted to be the hero.  And Tris knew the death serum couldn't kill her.  She wanted the world to think she was a hero, that her acts were selfless, and maybe Roth wanted that as well.  But she came across as a teenager with a chip on her shoulder who had to always be right, always had to know better than everyone else, regardless of the consequences.  Death really was the only proper outcome.

As a whole, I applaud the trilogy.  Unlike The Hunger Games, I didn't feel like the subsequent books in the trilogy fell off in the writing or in the plot.  And while many hated the ending, I felt it was a necessary conclusion - but maybe that's because I really had no mushy feelings for Tris.  And can I just say - Tris is BLONDE.  Roth tells us this every fourth line it seems.  Why couldn't they make certain her hair color was correct in the movie!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Tiger's Wife - Tea Obreht

It has been over a year since my last post, but not over a year since I've read a novel!!  Time and life have gotten away from me.  But the book I stayed up last night to finish has forced me to take some time out of my holiday in order to share the sheer beauty of an artfully crafted tale.

Tea Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia, but spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt.  She immigrated to the US in her teens.  The Tiger's Wife, published in 2011, is her debut novel.  (As of yet, a sophomore attempt has not been published.)  For a young writer, Obreht has scores of accolades already and, based on The Tiger's Wife alone, she is well-deserving of every bit of praise.

The Tiger's Wife sparkles with a magic that an author cannot learn - it has to be in your soul, and Obreht's soul was pulsating.  The relationship she crafts between Natalia and her grandfather creates an easy pathway between family lore, magic, and the present.

"In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.  He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress.  It is autumn, and I am four years old.  The certainty of this process: my grandfather's hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park.  Always in my grandfather's breastpocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and yellow pages.  I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon while he recites passages to me."

And so begins a story that is just as much Natalia's as it is her grandfather's.  Obreht cleverly weaves in and out of the present, juxtaposing stories passed down by Natalia's grandfather with the present - stories that are full of magic and horror, love and loss.  The tiger's wife, the deaf-mute who earned her rightful place as the namesake for the novel, has a story most beautiful and tragic.  Natalia's grandfather's memory of her, a memory of his youth, is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.  A talented man whose closeted homosexuality and family obligations create a monster of a husband when all his hopes and dreams are shattered by his father.  A lost tiger in the war who finds love and sanctuary with a deaf-mute who was never the intended.  Cowards of men who fear the tiger and so seek to destroy.  A man made bear by legend.  A man, the nephew of Death, who could not die and travels throughout the story without aging, taking souls to his uncle in the hopes that he will one day be free.  An elephant led through the city in the magic of the night.  The breaking of a coffee cup.  Cheating death.  The magic of The Jungle Book.  A war torn zoo.  Animals turning on themselves and each other under the wail of sirens during air raids.  Teenage rebellion during a war.  Stolen skulls and lungs.  Forty days.  A war torn country where neighbors, family members suddenly become "the other" and sides must be chosen.  A tiger who hasn't been seen in years, but who is always there.

Natalia is defined by her grandfather's life and stories, as such, the tiger's wife is just as much a part of her.  Even after her grandfather goes to meet Death like the old friend he is, the tiger is still there.