Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Blog Tour Review & Giveaway: The Spirit Keeper by K.B. Laugheed

Publisher: Plume
Date: September 24, 2013
Format: paperback
Source: TLC Book Tours
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 340
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: The thirteenth child conceived of miserable Irish exiles, Katie O’Toole dreams of a different life. Little does she know that someone far away is dreaming of her. In 1747, savages raid her family home, and seventeen-year-old Katie is taken captive. Syawa and Hector have been searching for her, guided by Syawa’s dreams. A young Holyman, Syawa believes Katie is the subject of his Vision: the Creature of Fire and Ice, destined to bring a great gift to his people. Despite her flaming hair and ice-blue eyes, Katie is certain he is mistaken, but faced with returning to her family, she agrees to join them. She soon discovers that in order to fulfill Syawa’s Vision, she must first become his Spirit Keeper, embarking on an epic journey that will change her life—and heart—forever.

My review: Early American captivity narrative from the Pennsylvania frontier? I am so totally into this. An epic journey across early Historic Native America? Even better. My one wish is that the author would have included some kind of historical note. I think the historicity of this novel is, overall, pretty good, but there were some aspects I wondered about, among them being the likelihood of an epic journey literally across North America, but most especially how much any of the Native groups in the novel are based on specific tribes rather than being simply ahistorical, imagined amalgamations.

Kudos to the author for including Irish (and there were some hints that the dad was Scots-Irish, perhaps?), English, French, AND Spanish characters, though I felt like sometimes they were all rather stereotypically drawn.

The actual story. Oh my gosh. Did I mention the epic journey? It's so well-written, and the twists and action of the plot are perfectly worked in. The romance, also, is very well-developed and, I thought, tasteful - it develops quite naturally; no insta-love here! I loved how Katie is thrust into this new situation in which she must deal with so many foreign things, and she manages everything with a realistic mixture of success, failure, and confusion. The portrayal of the cultural misunderstandings and misinterpretations that arise and just how different are Katie's world, experiences, and perceptions to those of her companions is so perfect. The only thing that irked me a bit towards the end was a shift in focus from the journey and the whole Spirit Keeper thing to Katie's relationship with another character; it seemed like Katie's personal transformation and some of the messages of the novel shifted along with this change. But perhaps a sequel is in the works in which some of the original themes return?

Giveaway: Thanks to TLC Book Tours, I have one copy of The Spirit Keeper to give away to a lucky winner! Contest is open to US/Canadian addresses only; ends December 10, 2013.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mini-Reviews: An Eclectic Mix of Fiction

Wigalois by Wirnt von Grafenberg (13th cent.)
trans. J.W. Thomas, 1977
Surprisingly, I haven't been all that thrilled about my readings for Arthurian Lit this semester. Wigalois was a welcome change from that! The story seemed like one of the most cohesive and best-written for the works we've read in class, and I found myself finally enjoying just reading the assigned text. The only annoying bit was how much Christian moralizing is included.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
I was surprised at how different this was from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I found most of the characters irritating, some quite comically so. Such comic relief was odd, but very entertaining, against the otherwise really creepy storyline. I enjoyed this novel a good deal and thought the resolution, as well as the explanations of events, was much better than that of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Brownsville: Stories by Oscar Casares (2003)
I'm terrible at reviewing short story collections. Maybe because of the "short" part, I can never develop enough feelings and words to explain much about what I thought. I enjoyed reading this collection. It's contemporary fiction set around Brownsville, Texas, and the experiences described are fairly everyday occurrences. Casares has a nice writing style that makes interesting these rather mundane subjects, but there weren't any stories that particularly stuck out to me.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A More Diverse Universe: Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik

It's that time of year again - this is the second annual More Diverse Universe event, focusing on speculative fiction by authors of color and hosted by Aarti over at Book Lust. I participated last year with my review of Field of Honor by D.L. Birchfield (one of my favorite reads last year!), and this year I'm reviewing Utopia by Arabic author Ahmed Khaled Towfik.

Publisher: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
Translator: Chip Rossetti
Date: 2008 (trans. 2011)
Format: hardback
Source: Christmas gift
Read: for A More Diverse Universe
Pages: 160
Reading time: about two hours

From GoodReads: A grim futuristic account of Egyptian society in the year 2023, Utopia takes readers on a chilling journey beyond the gated communities of the North Coast where the wealthy are insulated from the bleakness of life outside the walls. When a young man and a girl break out from this bubble of affluence in order to see for themselves the lives of their impoverished fellow Egyptians they are confronted by a world that they had not imagined possible. 

My review: Utopia brings back many of the elements of classic dystopian novels: social criticism, frightening possible visions of the future, and pessimism. This particular novel is particularly aimed at Egyptian society; not knowing a great deal about events there over the past few years, I thought a lot of the messages could equally apply to any country or region. This is a brief book, but its vision is powerful and terrifying. The entire novel is an interesting read, but the ending in particular struck me by its lack of redemption for society. This deep pessimism is what really separates Towfik's Utopia from other recent dystopian writings that see themselves as needing to offer an ending with some goodness to a story rather than focus entirely upon prophetic examinations of socio-economic and political issues. The surprise of the conclusion made the book fantastic and utterly depressing to me at the same time.

Maturity factor: general content, non-explicit rape

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Children's Historical Fiction: Who Comes With Cannons? by Patricia Beatty

Publisher: Scholastic
Date: 1992
Format: paperback
Source: book sale
Read: because it's set in my home state
Pages: 186
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: When Truth Hopkins's father dies, she goes to live with her uncle and his family on their North Carolina farm. Like Truth, the Bardwells are Quakers. They oppose slavery but refuse to take up arms in the civil war that is now being waged to end this inhuman institution. Then one day, a runaway slave takes refuge on the Bardwell farm and, to Truth's amazement, her uncle hides him from the slave catchers. Even more puzzling, he asks her to accompany him when he delivers a wagonload of hay to a neighbor late that night. This ride, and the wagon's real cargo, involve Truth in a mysterious and dangerous underground movement -- and reveal how she can help further the cause of freedom without the use of a rifle.

My review: It took me a while to readjust to the simplicity of children's literature, and I am still not sure exactly how I feel about how oversimplified things could be at times. At the beginning, especially, the dialogue seemed stilted, and not just because of the typical Quaker "thee's" and "thy's." There is not a particularly large cast of characters, with the result that the Southern characters, with the exception of Truth's schoolteacher, are either Quakers or rather stereotypically-drawn, die-hard Confederates (and all men, at that). Also, the fact that this ~175 page book covers all years of the Civil War means that there are major time gaps, sometimes at points where I wished daily life and other events could have been more fleshed out.

But otherwise, this is a sweet story about a young girl finding courage and her own voice during a pretty bad time in American history. I particularly appreciated the novel's emphasis on Quaker experiences during the war as well as its portrayal of North Carolina's Battle of Bentonville, both of which are uncommon in the other Civil War fiction I've run across. And while slavery and the Underground Railroad are common themes in children's historical fiction, I think it's rare for a novel to include abolitionists also traveling along the Railroad. There are still more aspects of this book that are unusual, like visits to a Union prison for Confederate POWs and mentions of former slaves going to Liberia. And while I am not a huge fan of token appearances by such famous personages as Frederick Douglass and the Lincolns, as well as the simplified nature in which Sherman's March in particular is portrayed, this is a pretty cool novel that moves past the most famous battles and aspects of the war to describe the experiences of someone who, rather than taking sides in the conflict, is caught completely in its crossfire.