Friday, June 6, 2014

The Third Eye by Mahtab Narsimhan

The Third Eye (The Tara Trilogy #1)
Mahtab Narsimhan 
Dundurn, 2007
paperback edition

Tara’s mother and grandfather disappear in the middle of the night, and soon, her father remarries, leaving Tara and her little brother, Suraj, pitted against an evil stepmother. In true fantasy fashion, the stepmother pampers her own child and neglects Tara and Suraj. It’s almost unbearable for the children, especially since their father is a mere shell of his past self, unable to spin the tales he used to tell. When a strange newcomer, Zarku, tries to usurp Tara’s missing grandfather’s place as the village healer, Tara hatches a plan to scour the dangerous forest for her missing relatives. However, the night is dark and full of vetalas…and before things are done, Tara forges an alliance with Lord Yama, the god of death.

The Third Eye won the 2009 Silver Birch Award from the Ontario Library Association for books aimed at young readers. It’s not hard to see why: Third Eye is an engrossing, fast-paced fantasy adventure that incorporates Indian culture and Hindu stories. I loved that Tara’s quest is not only to save her family (and her relationship with her younger brother is, frankly, cute), but to save the men of her village, who are Zarku’s biggest targets. How often does a little girl end up in that position? I also enjoyed how stories and storytelling were embedded within the plot, such as the inclusion of Tara’s father’s stories, which gave me a pleasant sense that the story was operating on multiple levels.

The writing is uneven at times, and I sometimes wished for more attention to introducing details at just the right time. I also wished for a little more subtlety in the struggle between good and evil. Still, when this story is good, it’s especially good. I devoured most of the book on a plane ride, and I’ll be going back for the rest of the series—this book ends on a breathtaking cliffhanger.

This review first ran in the June 2014 Sirens newsletter.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia

I was packing up some books, and I checked to see what I wrote about Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad). Much to my surprise, nothing, even though this was a highlight on the contemporary shelf I've been clearing out.

Trina, Dominique, and Leticia are in a pressure cooker also known as adolescence. Trina, a young Latina girl immersed in art and a self-imposed picture of her worth, is too self-absorbed to notice when she accidentally wrongs Dominique in the hall one morning. Dominique, banished from the basketball team, focuses her anger there, and vows to take Trina down after school. Leticia witnesses the whole thing, but is inclined to never, ever get involved--she'd much rather watch the world than be part of it, even though she's the only one who has the voice to prevent the coming violence. Over the course of just one day, Leticia has to decide.

There are two things that fascinate me about this book. The first is how much Williams-Garcia packs into the slender story. There's the despair and powerlessness of getting through school and all its restrictions along with the acknowledgment that one can have great power within such a system. There is the idea that we have choices we don't know we have. There's a look at addiction, in a way; here, it's to the short-lived stories that Leticia craves, whether gossip or on television. There's a look at the desire to control something, anything, in one's own life, especially when one cannot see any real future. There's an acknowledgement that we fail, that our schools fail, that our society has failed to support many students in huge urban schools. I've known girls like Trina, Dominique, and Leticia, and I know that the story on this page hasn't been fiction for them. Even without that, there is much to discuss, and I think Jumped would make an incredible classroom read.

The second fascination is the incredible voice. Chapters rotate among the girls, and each has a distinct and recognizable voice. I read so many books that alternate POV, and the main difference between the (usually two) main characters is whose name heads the chapter; if I'm lucky, the POV adheres a little closer to the chapter's character and doesn't repeat too much of what came before, or remove all of the mystery when the two meet. In Jumped, I have the sense that each girl is firmly rooted in her perspective, and that while they share some ideas and language by virtue of being at the same school, they each have a distinct story. Jumped is a must-read for writers who plan to narrate from multiple characters' perspectives.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

I've never seen the film of Up in the Air by Walter Kirin (various editions; I read the movie tie-in). I understand that few of the plot points are the same, so if you've only seen it, well, I'm interested in hearing what you think.

Ryan Bingham speaks corporate. He's a road warrior, position head-remover. When a company needs people fired, Ryan does it, and counsels them toward Believing in Themselves and Succeeding. He thinks MythTech might be going to swoop in and save him from this bilious sort of life. They're checking up on him, aren't they? Sending him secret messages, aren't they? We stay with Ryan for his last itinerary, during which he's trying to hit his million airline miles before he quits. He'll give some away to charity and take a trip. It'll be nice.

Before he leaves, Ryan leaves his resignation on his boss's desk. He tries to make his meetings while also pitching a book deal, having some hookups, and retrieving his sister, a runaway bride, before heading to the family homestead. It's all a bit bizarre.

For me, the jaded businessman was an okay story, but the more fun one was spotting the outdated tech (this was published just after Y2K). Executives worrying about cell phone minutes. Metal detectors only at airport security. Cassette tape players (already a little old then). And yet, because Ryan was really interested in his own security and how he was being watched by MythTech, there was something creepily futuristic (modern?) in his fear.

I confess I felt a bit cheated by the ending, but I also should have seen it coming, and it does leave the book open for re-reading and reinterpretation. I won't, but someone else might. Instead, I'll revisit some of the travel books I used to sneak read in my youth, like the infamous Coffee, Tea or Me?

That's the end of the adult book winter reading stretch; next, it's back to YA. I'm working on a contemporary shelf that I'm trying to box up, so it'll be a bit before I'm back to SF/F.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

You know, when I stumbled past Amy Tan being interviewed at last year's Book Expo America, I had to stop and listen, even though that's not what was on my itinerary. She's just an interesting lady! I put The Valley of Amazement (HarperCollins - Ecco) on my to-read list, and received a copy for Christmas, and since it's (for me) catching up on things not YA/fantasy/SF season, I grabbed the book out of the vast pile that I'm trying to pare down. (Books are going in boxes for a variety of reasons, and I won't see them again for a while.) I noted that I haven't read anything of Tan's in a while, but I think I thought I had because The Joy Luck Club is so often excerpted for tests and reading curricula.


This is a commitment of a book. It's quite long, and it's quite harrowing. Lulu Minturn runs a brothel in Shanghai in 1905, one where locals and foreigners can meet to mingle and do business as well as do business. Her daughter, Violet, is absolutely American until she realizes she isn't, and that her father is Chinese. The Qing dynasty comes to an end, and the plan to go to the United States, but one of Lulu's paramours tricks Lulu into leaving Violet for dead, and the paramour sells Violet to another brothel. There, she must be perfectly Chinese to survive.

There are a lot of themes I like in this book. One is long-term friendships between women; another is the love (and sometimes difficulty) of navigating relationships among several generations of women in the same family who have grown up under very different sets of rules. Another is recognizing, appreciating, and enjoying love--and understanding what love is not. Yet another is forgiveness. And another resilience. Another navigating being part of two very separate backgrounds.

I enjoyed the historical setting, largely because there's a focus on the everyday--what people ate, thought, wore. (I am not familiar enough to speak to its accuracy; I assume that some details are brutally honest, some changed to support the story.) I liked that the women here are complex--sometimes sympathetic, sometimes unlikeable, sometimes making choices or holding attitudes I think they shouldn't. I liked that the brothels aren't allowed to be too nice, even when we're nice; just when you think Violet is safe, we're reminded that even though this is fiction, it's based on a harsh reality. (It's too easy to be enchanted by the surface details of beauty and art and forget that the end result is sex for money with girls, and when they fall from grace, the rest of their lives can be short and violent. Details are not held back.) I thought that Violet's pull to be parts of two worlds and two races was interestingly mutable as she incorporated outside influences with her own feelings (and her observations and decisions are much more thoughtful than those of others, who want to simplify her at every turn).

It seemed to me that some spots in the book, particularly lengthy character monologues, replaced even lengthier sections that had had to be cut. I understand that Tan spent a lot of time with family and guides researching The Valley of Amazement, so she probably had more material than could be incorporated, and I sometimes wished for more polishing of those bits. However, everything else flew by, and I really was engaged by Violet and the other women who get a bit of narrator time. I'd recommend this for fans of Memoirs of a Geisha and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, as well as for readers who like imperfect family relationships, sweeping historical stories, and friendships.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

At the beginning of the year, I tend to catch up on my "adult" reading--Smithsonian and National Geographic, nonfiction, business and craft books, and the like. I'm currently reading Hothouse and I just finished and was wowed by Jumped by Rita Williams Garcia (not an adult book, but in one of the to-read piles that was easier to read than to box up, since I'm packing books at the moment).

And then I was gifted The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (Penguin - Riverhead). This is a historical novel about girls--who could be YA if this were pointed in that direction--living in not-quite-fin-de-siecle France. The oldest of three sisters, Antoinette, has lost her place in the ballet, and is pulled toward a fascinating boy who, as she says, makes her feel adored, but may be her ruin. The middle sister, Marie, earns a place in the ballet for herself, as does the youngest, Charlotte, while Antoinette takes a job as an actress. They all work because they love the work, but they also need to support themselves. Their father is deceased, and their mother a laundress who loves laudanum best.

Alternating between Antoinette and Marie, we get a picture of the life of the poor in Paris--the poor who will take second jobs in a bakery before ballet rehearsal, the ones who might take on jobs that involve the sale of their dignity, if it comes to it. Antoinette, prostitution, just enough to save money for the journey to New Caledonia, where her jailed lover will be sent, and where she hopes to join him and to start a new life once he's freed. Marie, to keep the family together, will pose for Degas, who is painting and, in her case, sculpting ballet girls--and when she must, for a patron whose palette is only for show. The space between rock bottom and just above is very narrow, and narrower still once the sisters find that living without one another would be a terrible agony.

What makes this book tick:
1. Lots of ballet!
2. And Degas!
3. And it's based on some real people, though not all real relationships.
4. And it's an interesting peek at some of the values of the time.
5. This would make a great book club read.

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