Summer Book Bingo 2015

There are many ways to create a reading project, but this has to be one of the most creative: Books on the Nightstand’s Book Bingo! Go to the link and read about it, then get your own card.  Here’s mine:

  
It runs from today (Memorial Day) until September 7th, Labor Day.  I’m thinking I’ll go for the first column, because I was just thinking about rereading The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, a great children’s chapter book. Or maybe the bottom row, because I just picked up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, which is about a girl raised with a chimpanzee, so that would cover two squares. I’m trying not to cheat and use books I’ve already read or already started before today.  If you get stuck BOTNS has set up a Good Reads thing for people to make suggestions of books that fit different categories. Anyhoo, just a fun reading project for the summer to challenge yourself.  

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Memorial Day 2015

I have very mixed feelings about this so-called holiday.  On the one hand, great, my husband gets a day off from work.  On the other hand, why? To remember people who served our country, maybe not just the ones who didn’t come back, but how about the ones who have come back and been permanently damaged, physically, psychologically, or both? My father served in Korea as a Marine and he  never, ever talked about it when I was growing up, only at the very end of his life.  I was a snot as a teenager, like all teenagers I suppose, thought I knew it all and that the military was just plain stupid.  How simple that was.

Anyway, I have renewed respect for people who have fought in wars, for whatever reason. I don’t judge them. So, enough already with the politics, right? Why am I going on about this on my book blog, you are wondering? Well, it so happens that I listened to a very good podcast yesterday about military fantasy/sci-fi, on one of my favorite shows, The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Episode #143. There is a great panel that discusses writers of this subgenre, and how some writers get the whole “grunt” experience right and others don’t.  I found myself interested in this discussion,  about the stories that are not about the leaders of the war.

    

Two series mentioned that I’m currently looking into are Weston Ochse’s Seal Team 666, about a very special ops team who fight supernatural beings, and Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, about a band of mercenaries. I was especially interested to hear that Cook, who used to be in the Navy, wrote an essay about PTSD that doctors use now to better understand how to help returning soldiers.  In other words, he’s got cred.

Anyhow, if any of you have read these series I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m pretty new to this subgenre.

They Still Write Westerns?

Yeah, evidently they do.  And I just read a really good one. I would never have picked up a western on my own, but Gav, Simon, Kate and Rob of Hear…Read This recommended it pretty highly (episode 17 if you want to hear their discussion), and so I gave it a whirl.  

  
The Thicket, by Joe Lansdale, starts with a bang, but not from gunfire.  Jack, the teenaged narrator, and his younger sister Lula, have just watched both their parents die from a grisly pox. Most of the town is dead from it as well. Their grandfather packs up the three of them, some mules and a wagon, to leave west Texas for an obscure aunt in Kansas.  They come to a river where there used to be a bridge, but some enterprising bastard has burnt it down in favor of making folks pay him for a ferry ride across.  

As Grandpa is trying unsucessfully to haggle a price on the ferry ride, three stange men show up for a ride as well, and their tense ride across the river together had me holding my breath. Both humans and Mother Nature contribute to the swirl of violence that ensues, leaving Grandpa shot dead,  Jack almost drowned, and Lula on the wrong side of the river, kidnapped by the less-than-savory men. And that’s just chapter one!

Jack’s only concern now is getting back his sister, but first he has to find help.  This is by no means a straighforward process, and he finally ends up with a sharp-shooting, philosophical dwarf, the son of a slave who can’t hold his liquor, and a smelly, angry hog.  So, forget Kansas, this is a different journey, full of mean, sometimes stupid men, fallen women, and a whole lot of killing. 

Every time I look at the author photo in the dust jacket, I freak out, because Joe Lansdale looks like a quiet, uncommunicative Norwegian, yet his Western style of writing uses more than a bit of cheek to create very straightforward descriptions. For example, Jack describes his grandfather’s frugality thus: “Daddy always said Grandpa was so tight that when he blinked the skin on his pecker rolled back.” Some of the dialogue is downright hilarious in its ridiculousness.  Here’s a typical exchange, when Jack’s party is questioning an injured boy they find on the trail:

     “Let him tell it,” Shorty said.
     “I done told it,” the colored boy said. “I was riding in the back of the wagon with the goods. Mr. Druskin and his dog, Butch, was in the buck seat driving the mules. I mean Mr. Druskin. The dog didn’t know how.”
     “That’s disappointing,” Jimmie Sue said.
     “Yeah,” Spot said. “I would have liked that. A dog driving a wagon.”
     “Would you two shut up?” Shorty said.

There are also passages of great beauty, like this moment when Jack is falling asleep, wishing things had gone differently crossing that river: “I remembered that mule flying over me, and somehow, the way I saw it in my troubled head, I was on that mule’s back, and it had wings, and my sister was sitting behind me, her arms around my waist, and we were flying rapidly up and away, into a sky blue as a Swede’s eye.”

What makes the violence in the story bearable is that we the readers are inhabiting the experience through Jack, who is a good kid.  Of course he changes as a result of his experiences, but he changes his companions as well.  They are better off for knowing each other.

This was a really enjoyable book to read.  It’s what the John Ford movie The Searchers should have been, for me.  I hate that movie.  It’s gorgeous, and the story is similar, in that some bad men kill a family and steal the daughter, so the plot is about the journey to find her and rescue her.  Only, in the the film, the bad guys are Native Americans, and John Wayne’s character keeps telling the other guy (her brother?) how she won’t be pure anymore, she’ll be tainted, like it’s her fault.  He despises her almost more than the men who took her.  It’s despicable on soooo many levels.  The Thicket was a fabulous antidote. I might even read another Western after this. So suck it, John Ford!

If You Could Go Back and Fix It

I just finished the graphic novel Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley for my Graphic Novel Book Club. Then I found out that O’Malley is the creator of Scott Pilgrim, which I’ve never read but even I, relatively ignorant of the stars of the graphic noveldom, know of Scott Pilgrim and O’Malley’s success with said Pilgrim. So maybe now I’ll read that.  I’m kind of glad we didn’t read Pilgrim because there would have been too much expectation.  But I took Seconds at face value on its own and really enjoyed it.  

  

The title Seconds refers to second chances, as in you messed things up, but you get a chance to go back and fix your mistakes.  The title also refers to the name of the main character’s restaurant, as in the food is so good you want seconds.  Clever, no? And the drawings of the food do look delectable, even when I can’t tell exactly what they are. 

The story is ostensibly about chef Katie leaving Seconds and starting a new restaurant where she will be chef and own the place. She’s been saving up for this for years, living in a hovel above Seconds, and now the building she bought for the new restaurant is turning into a money pit.  Should she have picked a different location, one in better shape that she wasn’t so passionate about but would have been less risky?

All she can do now is wait, and so she’s hanging around Seconds when there’s an accident and a server gets injured, basically because of Katie’s disruptive presence. Enter the second chance, involving a house spirit and some magic mushrooms.  When Katie wakes up the next morning, she relives the moments before the accident and makes a different choice so that it doesn’t happen.  That’s “Revision #1.” As you might expect, something else happens that she wants to fix, and she starts to get greedy, fixing so many things so many times that she can hardly keep track of what version of her life she’s living. She even argues with the narrator at times, revising her version of events as well. 

I love the exploration of this idea of being able to go back and make a different choice, something we’ve probably all wanted the power to do at least once in our lives.  Of course, there are consequences, and O’Malley has fun creating an abstract visual representation of the universe being out of balance.  

I’m pleased to say Seconds passes the Bechdel test: There is an ex-boyfriend and a couple of love interests, but the female characters are interesting and have intelligent conversations that have nothing to do with men! Plus, they don’t have Barbie bodies. They actually have individual shapes.  

I really enjoyed the drawing style as well as the story.  O’Malley gives us a map of Seconds, showing everything from the prep kitchen to someone messing with their cel phone while sitting on the toilet in the bathroom. I love maps. He also has a great variety of page layouts, some with only a few panels, and some with as many as fifteen when there’s lots going on, but they’re never confusing.  It’s easy to follow the flow of the panels.  

I suspect O’Malley is an expert storyteller, making it look easy,  and that the more I read graphic novels, the more I will go back to O’Malley to see exactly what he does to make it so good.

“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

If you, like Indiana Jones, have a severe aversion to snakes, you probably won’t enjoy Awakening by S. J. Bolton–the snakes will be just too distracting. 

  
Clara is a veterinarian in a small town, where she works at The Little Order of St. Francis, which was founded by Catholic monks in the late 1800s to treat sick and injured wild animals, including snakes, badgers, and wild birds.  She relates better to animals than to people, but a rash of snakes in the village plunges her into the spotlight as the resident expert, whether she likes it or not.  Clara is under the mistaken illusion that living in a small town will afford her the privacy she so desperately craves, when really, her every move is much more under the microscope in a small town than if she lived in a big, anonymous city.  

Clara’s aversion to other people comes from being severely self-conscious about a deforming scar on her face that dates back to her early childhood. The reader only gradually learns more about this scar, as Clara herself hardly likes to think about it, and she’s narrating the story. 

So, the snakes.  A man dies from a snake bite, but Clara is suspicious, as a bite from this snake rarely kills.  Turns out she’s right, that the amount of venom found in the body is so high that it could not have come from a bite–someone injected it to kill the man.  Then a family wakes in the middle of the night to a house filled with a “swarm” of snakes, which theoretically could happen.  I found this rather alarming, I must say, but by that time there was a ghost in an old, crumbling house, a hot police detective, and a mystery, and I couldn’t put it down.

Awakening is a great title, as it works on several levels, including Clara’s own awakening to how people really see her as opposed to how she thinks they see her.  There’s also some fascinating history about a real religious sect that used snakes in their rituals, as well as snake-handling in general and the genuinely unsolvable mystery of how some people can handle snakes and never get bitten.  I liked that Bolton found some mystery to leave unsolved, and had such a fascinating solution to the crimes involving the snakes and the ghost.