Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oonagh by Mary Tilberg

This is one of those books that's hard to review because you want readers to experience the book--called an "act of narrative resurrection" by another reviewer--without knowing too much in advance.

The origin of this book is as fascinating as the book itself: Tilberg was reading Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush, and a tiny bit of paragraph kindled an idea. Moodie mentioned the shivaree of a black man (a barber, an escaped slave from America) and his white wife, a pretty Irish girl he'd "persuaded to marry him." Moodie said nothing else about this couple in the book, just a few sentences on a page, but they rooted in Tilberg's imagination; she had to know more.

Tilberg sought out the remnants of the Underground Railroad. She scoured newspapers for mentions of this strange couple. From a scrap--a barber's ad--and her wider research of their likely histories, Tilberg has created a love story spliced from Chauncey's escape and survival and Oonagh's emigration from Ireland just before the cholera epidemic in the early 1830's.

The book has left me feeling sad; I wasn't prepared to be done with Chauncey and Oonagh, yet. I wanted to know Oonagh's family better; I wanted to know more about her sisters and brother who didn't come to Canada. Mostly, though, I wanted there to be more to Oonagh and Chauncey's story.

My only two (tiny) complaints:
  1. Oonagh's apparent selective obliviousness to the extent of racial tensions in the town defied belief at times.
  2. The last chapter felt more like a history lesson and less like part of the narrative that had been flowing so smoothly before. I would have liked one more chapter before the last one to act as a bridge to the future, more mature Oonagh's mindset; I wasn't ready to be there yet when I arrived at the 30-year-jump.
Though my immigration experience to Canada has been very different from Oonagh's, her dreams and desires and emotions are universal. Even people who have never gone far from home and family will ache and laugh, celebrate and mourn with her.

I haven't yet read
Galway Bay, but I'd expect that those who enjoyed it would also be well advised to add Oonagh to their wish list, though the only common thread may be the Irish immigrant narrators and readers' love of thoroughly researched, well written historical fiction.

Many thanks to Cormorant for sending a review copy.

Complexity of Night Writing Challenge Update (March)


It's been a weird month. I got my required word count in early this month, when I tried to turn a dream I had into a story. It's too steamy for me to actually share any of it with you; sorry to disappoint.

Then I did a lot of writing by hand in my beloved Moleskine at the local writers festival last weekend--probably about 500 words, which is a lot, considering that the festival doesn't really allow time to write, which meant I was writing while our presenters were talking. Normally, I walk away from writers festival day feeling motivated to write; this year, I felt oddly disconnected. Maybe a lot of it was because I'd done so little for it this year (I'm on the board), seeing as how I was sick with a strain of virus notorious for relapses, and I hadn't wanted to commit to do anything while I was still running at half-speed and in danger of getting sick again (or passing it on).

So, total word count for the month? Roughly 2000 words.

And a question for all you writers: When you're looking for a writers festival/conference to attend, what are the things that motivate you to go out of your way to attend?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Water Ghosts by Shawna Yang Ryan

Yes, Water Ghosts is as haunting as its title suggests.

The characters are haunted by their lives, by old expectations. Mostly, though, they are haunted by the spectre of love--what they want it to be, how they wish it were different, what could have been if.... The characters are subject to, more than anything else in their lives, love's morphability, its capricious nature, its temperaments, and all the other feelings that come with it (or its absence): power, longing, protectiveness, desperation, jealousy.

The people in Locke, California, a town of Japanese and Chinese immigrants, are settled (read: resigned) into their lives before the three women arrive in their strange little boat, appearing out of a surreal mist during a town celebration. But the boat-women upset a balance. In a town of men looking for wives, where men significantly outnumber the women, two of the strange women are courted by every free man (and probably a couple who aren't really free) in town.

One of the strange boat-women is the wife of one of the more successful men in town, the manager of a gambling hall; she was left behind when he came seeking fortune in America, and afraid she had been abandoned, she risked everything she had to be with him. One woman is searching for her husband, who she hadn't heard from for months before she left. One woman, the youngest, seems to have no story at all.

Poppy, a brothel madame who has long been in love with the gambling hall manager and who has a gift of second sight, is disturbed by the presence of the women; there is something not right about the ever-cold, almost luminescent survivors of the sea.

In spite of their arrival putting town order into disarray, though, the women themselves remain on the outskirts of the stories that had been in motion before their arrival. But it is the boat-women who effect the characters' decisions, their courses of action, the reinvention of their lives, in the end.

With clear, unpretentious prose, the stories come together in the end like an unexpectedly high, intense wave rushing onto the shore. I was left breathless by the last fifty pages of this book.

Ryan has crafted a fantastic collection of lives and illusion, and I'll be adding her to my list of authors to watch.

Water Ghosts will be released April 16.

Many thanks to Penguin Press for sending me an ARC of Water Ghosts, and for choosing to, as Ryan puts it, give this book a second life. And to El Leon Literary Arts for publishing it the first time around. I'm ever so glad you did.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Engine's Child by Holly Phillips

It’s been a while since I’ve read a fantasy, so I was jonesin’, and The Engine’s Child seemed like a good bet. Awards. Praise. All that.*

That praise is well deserved. Holly Phillips creates a remarkably intricate society and land. Their society is at a breaking point; revolution stirs.

Our cast of characters includes: Moth, a slum orphan who's been sponsored into the world of priests and scholars; Lady Vashmarna, a noblewoman who has big plans that include Moth; and Lord Ghar, a nobleman who has designs of his own.

I only have two complaints about this book. First, and most important, the world and civilization is so complex that I had a hard time getting into it: language, magic, machinery, politics, political history, religions, and so on. I had a really hard time figuring out whether the machinery was mechanical as we understand it, magical, or some combination. (It’s a combination, by the way.) Thank goodness for the glossary of terms in the back.

My second complaint is that the events were mostly expected; nothing surprised me. Normally, the lack of surprises would bother me a lot more—but the setting is that fantastic.

So, yes, I look forward to reading more of Phillips's work. And I would be neither surprised nor disappointed to hear that this is actually the first in a series.

*Except the title. I really am not crazy about the title.

Thanks to Ballantine Books for sending me a review copy!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Unforgettable: The Darkangel Trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce

As you can see, these books have been re-released with new covers (above), which are very different from the covers of the books I bought ten years ago (below).

These books are definitely intended for at least a junior high audience. Still, that didn't stop me from checking The Darkangel out of the school library when I was in third grade. I loved the summary on the back and was determined to read it. Unfortunately, my reading skills weren't quite up to the challenge of reading this fantasy book written for kids much older than me. So I reluctantly returned it to the library, having only read maybe twenty pages; I returned it early in the morning when the librarian wasn't in the library yet so that I wouldn't have to admit to her that she had been right, that it was a little too old for me.

But I certainly didn't forget about. When I got to sixth grade, I went back to the library in search of it. It wasn't there. I figured it must've been one of the books the school library borrowed from the public library, but they didn't have a listing for it either. A few years later, our town library networked their catalog with those of the other libraries in northwest Ohio, and I went back to check the other libraries. I searched both Darkangel and Dark Angel. I got a few hits for the latter, but none of them were the book I sought (but I did get a hit on a VC Andrews book that I did read).

I checked library catalogs intermittently throughout high school, but never with any luck.

And then, in my junior year of college, I took an adolescent literature course. One of our last assignments was to read a book--any book--from the YA/teen section of the university library, a section I hadn't paid much attention to prior to that class. We had to talk to the class about the book, why we'd chosen it, and whether we'd use it as a class book (why/why not). A week before the book had to be read, I went browsing. I'd fallen out of touch with the world of YA books, so I wasn't sure what I'd find. I had three books in my hand--a biography, a science fiction book, and a general fiction book--when I decided to make my decision without going through the last few shelves. And that's when I glanced at the shelf, and there it was: The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce.

I took Pierce's book home, and read it all that night in front of the fireplace. And the next day, I went to work (at the university bookstore) and ordered the other two books in the trilogy, feeling at once excited and silly for not realizing that it was a trilogy. (I'm drawn to trilogies, so I should just assume that every book I pick up is the beginning of a trilogy.)

I'm inclined to think that fans of Robin McKinley's YA books will also like Pierce's, even though this is a strange kind of fairy tale, in which the darkangel of the title is a kind of vampire that sucks souls instead of blood, and he has to collect thirteen souls--his brides--to take to his witch-mother in order to complete his transformation. Aerial, our heroine, is a slave to the woman he takes as his twelfth bride, and she volunteers to be his thirteenth, knowing of nothing else she could possibly be suited for.

It becomes Aeriel's mission, both in the first book and through the rest of the trilogy, to save both herself and the vampire; she knows he's not beyond redemption yet.

This is one of the trilogies on my shelf that I don't ever plan to part with.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder by Eric Abrahamson & David H. Freedman

I've never been an organized person, and this has never caused me more problems than it did in my first year of teaching, when I was constantly misplacing stacks of papers (graded, ungraded, not handed out yet, things to run off, etc.). After that first year though, I managed to iron out enough kinks that my classroom ran pretty smoothly. And I've never been the person who minded having a messy desk, though it drove my mom (and my super-organized sister of the eight-page wedding day itinerary) a little crazy.

I suppose, then, that it was only natural that I was drawn to A Perfect Mess, which encourages embracing (or adding) bits of disorganization in our days.

To clarify: A Perfect Mess does not encourage hoarding or complete chaos or unsanitary living conditions. Instead, Abrahamson and Freedman have researched ways in which being a little messy about how you do things can be helpful in your life (at home, in offices or science labs, etc.). The book is full of stories of how being hyperorganized can be detrimental and how serendipity tends to fall to those of us who allow ourselves room to be messy. I especially appreciated their narative illustrations, and also how often bookstores were used as examples (and I have added a new bookstore to my must-visit list).

But though they do poke fun at the billions of dollars people spend (usually futilely) trying to get organized (and this includes hiring professional organizers to come to your house to unmess it), Abrahamson and Freedman don't discourage organization. What they encourage is a happy medium. And they want people to quit apologizing for the messy states of their homes; stacks of mail on dining room tables, kids' toys on the floor, piles of to-be-filed papers on your desk--these are all perfectly normal and we shouldn't be made to feel by the hyper-organized (who are outnumbered by the rest of us, I'd like to point out) that these things make us some kind of failure.

Abrahamson and Freedman also explore messiness in other, sometimes unexpected, areas--music (did you know improvisation used to be expected in Baroque music?), computers, search engines, hospitals, law offices, machine design, traffic patterns, jaywalking, schools, and lots more. Sometimes these other areas felt like overkill, and sometimes they seemed redundant (subjects did tend to overlap between chapters here and there), but overall, this book offered a pleasing tour through various aspects of organization and mess.

I highly recommend A Perfect Mess. It would make a great counterweighted perspective to books like the forthcoming Throw Out Fifty Things (which provokes a challenge being undertaken this weekend and being documented in a series of posts over at Devourer of Books).

Many thanks to Little, Brown & Co. for the review copy!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Unforgettable: Serilda's Star by Olive Rambo Cook

My grandfather picked up this book at a garage sale or flea market when I was in fourth grade--he was always doing that; he loved having bookworm grandkids--and I loved this book so much that I'd always borrow it again the week after I returned it, drawn by the brittle yellow paper cover with the girl in a red dress leading a horse down a hill. Grandpa noticed my re-borrowing and suggested I should just keep it.

Even though I only admired horses from afar, I couldn't resist this story set in the early 1900's of a girl who loves horses and desperately wants one of her own. One day, she sees a neighbor abusing his horse and intercedes. She, of course, ends up rescuing the horse and healing its wounded leg.

Part of what I found so interesting in the book was the discussion of horse-breeding. A big deal is made in the book about Star (the horse) being a thoroughbred, but without the papers to prove her lineage, Star is regarded as just another horse (beautiful though she is). I'd never considered breeds of animals before; a dog was a dog and a horse was a horse. Like people, they came in different sizes, shapes and colors.

Twenty years later, I'm very sorry I parted with this book. I'm pretty sure I let Mom sell it at a garage sale because I felt I'd outgrown it. Silly me. I must have been nineteen or so and filled with that nearly-no-longer-a-kid mindset.

Copies do come up on Ebay every now and then, and there are copies to be had from Amazon and localized auction sites. If you have a daughter of nine or ten who loves chapter books and/or horses--up close or from afar--I'd recommend trying to get your hands on this lovely story.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Unforgettable: Matilda by Roald Dahl

I read Matilda when I was in sixth grade. I think I bought it at a book fair.

I tucked into it that night, and when I finished it the next day, I gave it to my sister (two years younger) to read. We both read it more than once. A few years later, my other sister read it for class. As she had some trouble reading, Mom often helped by reading aloud to her, and I remember when K. was reading Matilda, we took a road trip, and we all got to enjoy Mom reading Matilda out loud (I would've been 15 by then).

It takes a major talent to write books that are laugh-out-loud funny every chapter, and to make books funny for both kids and any adults who might be reading with them takes much more.

When was the last time you experienced the Trunchbull in all her horridness, with her pokey and her riding crop? Do you remember how much different the book is from the movie? Do you remember how the book ends, as opposed to how the movie ends?

And if you haven't read it, what are you waiting for? Consider this an invitation to revel with me in fits of childish giggles as Matilda befuddles the grown-ups in her life.