The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

April 9, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

diaryThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie


Open up the front cover of this book and read over the praise heaped upon it. Go ahead, take your time; there are about four pages for it all. I’ll wait.


All done? Great. I just wanted you to get a feel for what others have said about it, because I want to say that it is all deserved. This is a fantastic book about coming of age against all odds, set firmly in the real world, against a culture about which we should all know more. It has pain and happiness, failure and success, humor and sadness, sometimes all happening at the same time.

Alexie creates vivid characters. Arnold, our main character and narrator, stands out among them all, but not at the expense of Rowdy or Penelope or Gordy, or even Arnold’s parents. They all stand out as unique individuals, even though they’re part of Arnold’s story.

Alexie also gives us a closer look at what it means to grow up on a reservation. This, I think, is the most important part of the novel. Anyone can relate to the Arnold’s trials, but it’s important for kids — privileged white kids especially — to see what it means to grow up outside of the establishment. I’ve heard (and believe) that reading fiction makes people more compassionate and empathetic; this book will certainly do so.

While not a graphic novel, the book is heavily illustrated, and those illustrations serve an important part of the story. Arnold is a cartoonist and artist, so those drawings give us further insights into what he thinks and, more importantly, what he sees. Ellen Forney captures the heart and sensibility of the story through her illustrations, enough so that it would be hard to imagine the story without them.

This is a fantastic story. It reminds me somewhat of Stargirl in subject and theme, even though they’re very different stories. If I had to pick a favorite between the two books … well, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Both books are vivid, readable, engaging, and important. If someone came to me asking for a recommendation for one over the other, I would have to tell them to find more time to read them both. They’re just that good.

Started: January 14, 2018
Finished: January 18, 2018

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Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga

October 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

waterBlackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga by Michael McDowell


Blackwater is a series written by Michael McDowell in 1983, long before Stephen King wrote his own novel-in-serial-form with The Green Mile. It’s an ambitious piece of work, covering fifty years of the Caskey family, who have owned one of the mills in Perdido, a small, river-bound Alabama town, following a catastrophic flood in 1919. From that flood appears Elinor, a mysterious woman with a hidden past who isn’t completely human, and begins to worm her way into the family.

McDowell was raised in Alabama, and if The Elements didn’t prove that he understood the South and its culture, Blackwater certainly does. This is a piece firmly embedded in the South, in its language, manners, humor, and atmosphere. Even the names of the characters — Sister, Mary-Love, Early, and Danjo (Daniel Joseph), to name just a few — reflect a culture that’s purely Southern.

Additionally, the story itself is told in a Southern way, in that the aberrations of the culture are never explicitly stated, but instead hints at them to allow the readers to draw their own conclusion. One character is introduced as having “the stamp of femininity”, seemingly in a whispered voice with raised eyebrows. The meaning is clear, even if the words aren’t spoken aloud, and this style is used when referring to Elinor. It’s not just that the characters speak around what makes Elinor different; the narrative itself dances around it. Characters in the story gossip, as does the narrative itself.

The story covers a long time, over multiple generations, and as such, sympathies shift from character to character as time progresses. McDowell creates a subtle air of menace and otherworldliness with Elinor, suggesting she’ll be the antagonist here, when in truth the matriarch of the family is the one to watch. This is another Southern characteristic, of the women, despite being considered to be less than the men, being the ones in control.

The way McDowell creates the family is brilliant. They span the emotional gamut with pettiness, honor, deceit, manipulation, and love despite the antagonism. It’s all there, and it feels real and genuine. It certainly helps that McDowell has 900 pages to spend developing them, but what makes the story shine is that despite there being at least a dozen main characters, none of them are dismissable or forgettable.

The story does have a supernatural element, enough for it to be considered horror, but its Southern-ness is its true charm. When you examine all the pieces of the story that make it Southern, though, it’s no surprise this is a horror novel. At the end of book four, I felt my heart beating faster, and rubbed down the chills on my arms. It wasn’t just that McDowell had created a genuinely creepy moment; it was a palpable reaction to the dread, fear, loss, and relief that went along with the scene. It’s a perfect, perfect moment that’s possible thanks to McDowell creating his characters with such care.

The atmosphere of both the horror and Southern genres complement each other perfectly, and since McDowell eschews violence and viscera for moments that elicit shivers, I can see this being a book as much for lovers of Southern fiction as for fans of horror. Either way, this is a brilliant, effective story that deserves a much wider audience. I can see this being a great story for creating a television series.

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Children of Time

August 1, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

timeChildren of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky


There are the classic epic science fiction novels — DuneStranger in a Strange Land, and Foundation among them — that everyone should read. They’re powerful works of fiction that force the reader to rethink everything they’ve known before so they walk away with a new perspective on the world and about themselves. Children of Time is another book to add to that list.

The story is twofold. It tells the story of humans, having abandoned Earth after destroying it and traveling through space to find a new world they can call home. It also tells the story of a species on a terraformed planet, uplifted with the help of humans, and how their civilization builds as they gain sentience. The two stories are intertwined and told in parallel, and it’s fascinating to read about the rise of one species while another speeds headlong into its own destruction.

Children of Time spans eons, but never feels tired. As a result, it’s a slow-burn of a story, but it never feels slow. The development of the two timelines is so compelling and realistic that it’s hard not to stay engaged. I found myself wanting to know more about the uplift species than the human drama, mostly because the human drama was something I’ve seen before. Still, the story involving the humans was engaging, too, thanks to Tchaikovsky capturing the characters so well.

Because the story spans such a long time, it would have been easy to get lost among generations and names, but Tchaikovsky overcomes this in two ways. For the human characters, he employs suspended animation so we see the same characters over centuries and millennia. For the uplift species, he creates archetypes of characters that he reuses from one generation to the next that he brings into the story, which works because the species has a genetic memory. The way Tchaikovsky writes his story, it’s suggested that the species don’t have names; instead, when he introduces a new archetype, he instead writes, “call her Viola”, or whatever name he chooses for that archetype.  It’s a brilliant device, and it helps to keep us connected to a species that, in our own minds, are still animals. Instead, we cheer with their victories and feel sorrow for their loss.

Tchaikovsky’s dialogue feels natural, and his characterization skills are strong. He does rely on lots of telling, but the book is a hard science fiction novel, and that’s to be expected for delivering so much technical information. That being said, the author has good turns of phrase, and he has moments where he shows us human nature in all its good and ill. The novel is a strong commentary on humanity and its endeavors, and where it can go. The ending feels a little forced in some ways, but it’s mostly in the science, not in the plot or the characters. Tchaikovsky doesn’t cheat on his story, and there’s so much good in this novel, I can overlook some clumsily-applied science.

Children of Time is moving, compelling, and thought-provoking. The story is as much commentary as it is fiction, and it shows us the best and worst in ourselves. In short, it’s everything a good science fiction novel should be. Fans of epic, generations-spanning science fiction should read this, as should anyone who enjoys a strong, well-told story.

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The Obelisk Gate

July 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

gateThe Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin


After the brilliance of The Fifth Season, I was hesitant to get my hopes up too much for its sequel. Sometimes trilogies that start off strong can peter out over the course of the remaining books, and I didn’t want to have too high expectations to appreciate the novel. I shouldn’t have worried, as Jemisin brings the same attention to detail and character to The Obelisk Gate as she did with The Fifth Season.

The book picks up right after the events of The Fifth Season, continuing to tell Essun’s tale. We still have the alternating chapters, some of them told in the second person, but that second person narration is now more than just a stylistic choice. It wasn’t in The Fifth Season, though that wasn’t apparent at first, but here that choice becomes more apparent.

Essun, now a part of a new comm, is continuing to learn new abilities and growing her strength. That this new comm is made up of orogenes who work out in the open is encouraging, as is the fact that she finds Alabaster again, after ten years. Now that the Earth is entering its latest, longest season, the different comms are preparing for the worst, which means they’re fighting each other for the supplies they’ll need during the hibernation.

Despite Essun finding a comm, and losing her lead on Nassun, her daughter, the story is still about her search for her daughter. In this book, we get to hear Nassun’s story from her perspective, seeing how she feels about Essun, Jija, and everyone else who orbits her life. It’s shocking in some ways, heart-breaking in others, but above all it’s engaging, especially when we consider how the reunion between them will go (because the way the story is going, there has to be a reunion).

The story is shaping up to be a tragedy, which is to be expected. After Essun lost two children in the previous book, lost her remaining daughter to an unstable husband, and after Alabaster set out to destroy the Earth, there’s no way it could be otherwise, but Jemisin still gives us hope — hope of reunion, hope of redemption, and hope of a better Earth. Whether she continues this trend with The Stone Sky is yet to be seen, but she’s bucked expectations up to this point, so why have any regarding the third book?

The Broken Earth is shaping up to be my favorite read of the year, and N.K. Jemisin is shaping up to be a new favorite author. I regret not reading her fiction in publication order, because I get the feeling her other novels will be shades of this series, but I plan on reading all of her work. She’s just too good a writer to do otherwise.

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The Fifth Season

July 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

seasonThe Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin


Five stars is not enough for this book.

The Stillness is an alternate Earth that is plagued by seismic activity. On an irregular schedule, the Stillness erupts, sending enough ash and other debris into the air to cause a lengthy winter, known as a Fifth Season. Among the Stillness are a handful of extraordinary people known as orogenes, who can control the movements of the Stillness, either preventing such cataclysmic events or causing them. The Fifth Season takes us to the time when the largest and longest Fifth Season is just beginning.

The story revolves around three independent stories:

Essun, an orogene, has just learned her husband has murdered their son and taken theirdaughter from their village, because he learned they, too, were orogenes. She leaves on a quest to find him, not just to save her daughter, but also to kill him herself.

Daimya, a young orogene, has been taken by a Guardian to take her to the Fulcrum, where she will learn to manage her powers. The Fulcrum does not promise an easy life; orogenes who don’t learn control are removed from the Fulcrum, but are not returned to their earlier lives.

Syenite, a four-ring orogene from the Fulcrum, is sent on a journey with Alabaster, a ten-ring orogene, to help a town. Syenite doesn’t know what help they are to provide, because she is a lowly four-ringer. Along the way, it is expected for the two of them to mate in order to create another orogene. That neither of them can stand the other is immaterial, to them or to the Fulcrum.

Jemisin reveals the world of the Sanze Empire to us through each character instead of using info-dumps. She writes with an ease that belies the complexity of the story and her characters. She writes Essun’s story in the second person, which struck me as questionable, but became easier to understand as the story progressed. In the end, there’s a good reason for this choice, but it takes time to understand it. Her characters are vivid and real, their relationships honest and convincing.

The Fifth Season is a fantastic, powerful book. It requires patience, and benefits from reading it slowly and methodically, which is a challenge, since you won’t want to leave the story. I read this book over the span of about three weeks, a chapter at a time, which gave me time to consider each section and piece it together with what came before. The story will linger in your mind, like a haunting melody or a youthful memory.

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Usagi Yojimbo

November 25, 2014 at 4:12 pm (Reads) (, )

Usagi YojimboUsagi Yojimbo, volumes 19-28, and Yokai, by Stan Sakai


Last year, I had set myself a goal to read 50 books.  My reading had slackened over the previous years, and I figured giving myself a goal would help me pick it back up again.  I think I could have made it, had I not opted to read the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series, as well as The Wise Man’s Fear (among those six books, I could have counted them as eighteen regular books), and I toyed with reading a whole bunch of graphic novels at the end of the year to catch up to my magic number.  I decided against it, since I wanted to go about the process honestly.  This year, I set the same goal, and have already blown past it, (leaving a sonic boom behind me as I go, I should add), so reading a block of Usagi Yojimbo collections isn’t going to make a difference in reaching that goal.  Besides, when I made my list of series to finish reading, I ordered them in reverse chronological order, and this is just where Usagi managed to land.

When I was going through and determining which series I had yet to finish, I was surprised that Usagi Yojimbo was in there at all.  It has always been a favorite series of mine, and I don’t know why I stopped reading them.  A lot has happened since then (ten more collections, a stand-alone graphic novel, and a collection of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy stories, to say nothing of the hiatus the ongoing series has been on for two years), and I’m pleased to be caught up.  I don’t plan on letting it fall to the side again.

The stories of Usagi Yojimbo are usually morality plays centered on life in Feudal Japan.  Usagi is a masterless samurai who roams Japan, doing work here and there, and usually serving as the moral compass of the series.  The themes of the stories center on honor, integrity, and responsibility, showcased through the eyes of Usagi and those he encounters on his travels.  The stories tend to feel very honest, and even have a feeling of innocence about them, even as they take on heavy issues regarding life and death.  Sakai draws from a number of resources for his stories, including Japanese history (he includes notations for the factual events he includes in his stories), and while a number of the stories focus on supernatural occurrences, those, too, are steeped in Japanese culture.  I’ve recommended this series to many people over the years, especially young adults, given that the stories are positive, educational, and fulfilling.

It’s easy to dismiss the series overall as a kids’ comic, since the characters are all anthropomorphized animals, but while the artwork looks cartoonish, it’s anything but simple.  Sakai understands graphic storytelling, taking the time to create establishing shots, populating large crowds with distinctive people, finding the visual nuances of each character and their expressions, and creating scenes that convey action without getting lost in a lot of detail.  Given the subject matter, there’s a lot of death that takes place in the series, but it’s never drawn in a gruesome fashion.  The only time Sakai includes blood in a scene is when it’s important to the event; when people are cut or stabbed or otherwise injured, we only see the circumstance, not the details, and when characters do die, Sakai indicates so by drawing a death’s head in the character’s word bubble.  It’s a very understated, suggested way of portraying the violence, without trivializing the consequences.

Overall, I think Usagi Yojimbo represents the best of what comic books and sequential art have to offer, for all readers, of all ages.  If you haven’t started reading it, it’s worth your time to find the first collection and get started.

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October 17, 2014 at 8:31 am (Reads) (, , )

DuneDune by Frank Herbert


This is another re-read for me, in preparation of finishing off the rest of the books in the series.  It went a lot faster this time around, partly because I didn’t have to stop every third page to look up what a gom jabbar was, or who the Kwisatz Haderach was, or what the shai hulud was.  In fact, I think I should write a quiz for people who haven’t read the Dune books and title it “Swedish Metal Band or Word from Dune?” (though I expect there may be some overlap between the two).

Anyway, as I was reading the book, I realized that it and A Song of Ice and Fire have some similarities.  The books have a tremendous political background that drives the story, the protagonists have honorable intentions, but aren’t necessarily the “good guys,” and there were some thematic elements that I found shared between the books.  The female characters particularly reminded me of those from Martin’s series, because they were represented as people who didn’t have much power in the society, but found ways to gain what power they could from the situations around them.  Jessica and Chani both had these characteristics, where even though they were subservient in their roles, they weren’t subservient by nature.  Aside from Jessica becoming a damsel in distress once she and Paul were forced into the desert after the Duke’s death, both were portrayed as strong women.  I’ve read some criticism of the novel, mostly saying that it’s dated, particularly in the way that women are portrayed, but I find that the characters have a feminist angle that’s very subtle.

Also, Samuel Delaney made a comment about Baron Harkonnen being a negative portrayal of homosexuals, which totally surprised me.  The Baron is a despicable character, and part of the way Herbert makes him despicable is through his sexual preference, but there’s a big difference between being attracted to men, and being attracted to young boys.  Harkonnen isn’t gay; he’s a pedophile.  I’m surprised that a gay man didn’t make that distinction, as it’s already a mistake the general public makes about men who like young boys.  That’s not synonymous with gay.

Overall, though, I think the book holds up very well, even if it is somewhat light on plot. Herbert does a great job of describing the world of Dune and all its unique character without using a lot of info-dumps. Paul and his family are new to the world, and have a lot to learn about living on Arrakis and working with the Fremen. The descriptions flow naturally from the story, which is pretty impressive when you look at how much Herbert had to convey about the world and its ecology.

I understand that the sequels get a lot weirder, and that the sequels don’t have the same level of renown as the first book, but I’m still interested in reading them. I’ve been looking forward to this step in my Unfinished Series project for a while now.

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April 10, 2014 at 7:03 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

1414 by Peter Clines


When I first heard of this novel, it was recommended that I not learn anything about it if I decided to read it. This is sort of how I do things anyway, so it wasn’t that big of a deal for me to avoid any potential spoilers. I trusted the guy well enough to figure that I would enjoy the book, so it was just a matter of finding a copy.

I won’t say anything except that 14 is fun. Sure, it had some funny moments, but that wasn’t really what it was about. I felt giddy while reading the book. It reminded me of how I felt reading Ready Player One, though the books are so different they’re not even comparable. If you enjoy well-told stories of mystery and horror, though, then you should definitely check it out. (Note, though, that it’s not really “in print” save for an e-book at the moment. I had to get a used copy.)

In short, this book is the literary equivalent of getting blitzed on grain alcohol and riding your bicycle through an entire loop-the-loop roller coaster while listening to Kyuss. If that sounds like fun, this might be the book for you.

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The Book Thief

September 18, 2009 at 10:46 am (Reads) (, , , )

book-thiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak


This isn’t my first time reading The Book Thief, and after my second time through, I’m fairly certain that it won’t be my last.  It’s just as powerful and compelling, maybe even more so, knowing what’s coming up in the next chapter or so.  I’m encouraged that this book still affected me the way that it did, because more than once, I’ve gone back to re-read a favorite book, only to find that it lacks the same punch as that first time I discovered it.  That was not the case with The Book Thief.

Some things I realized the second time through the book:

1. The characters are deftly drawn.  They’re complex, lifelike people who truly come alive from the pages, and surprise you with their power.  I realized this as I read the last 50 pages of the book — which totally wrecked me, emotionally — and saw how the author could do it with so few words.

2. The narrative is perfectly paced.  Everything in the book is important.  Every scene, every moment, every color, and every place is significant in some way.  To edit out or abridge this novel is akin to Emperor Joseph II asking Mozart to take out a few notes.

3. This is an honest book about life.  I can only think of two books in my adult life that have made me cry.  The first was Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, but even then, it was nothing like the way I responded to The Book Thief.  The book may be fiction, but fiction tells us the truth by lying to us, and this particular book does it better than any I’ve ever read before.

In short, this book is perfect.  I think everyone should read it.

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