Mezzowriter's ReadWriter Blog

Reading, Writing, and The Search for Buried Gems of Literature

What I’m NOT Reading #1: 47 July 11, 2010

I don’t give up on books easily.  For me to cast a book aside takes a lot.  I’m always trying to find something redeeming in what I read.

I picked this up in the clearance section of Half Price Books.  That should have been my first clue.

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47 by Walter Mosley

Little, Brown and Company, 2005

b

Pretty standard cover fare. Not gripping, but it WAS on clearance.

b

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From School Library Journal

Grade 7-10–The intense, personal slave narrative of 14-year-old Forty-seven becomes allegorical when a mysterious runaway slave shows up at the Corinthian Plantation. Tall John, who believes there are no masters and no slaves, and who carries a yellow carpet bag of magical healing potions and futuristic devices, is both an inspiration and an enigma. He claims he has crossed galaxies and centuries and arrived by Sun Ship on Earth in 1832 to find the one chosen to continue the fight against the evil Calash. The brutal white overseer and the cruel slave owner are disguised Calash who must be defeated. Tall John inserts himself into Forty-seven’s daily life and gradually cedes to him immortality and the power, confidence, and courage to confront the Calash to break the chains of slavery. With confidence, determination, and craft, Tall John becomes Forty-seven’s alter ego, challenging him and inspiring him to see beyond slavery and fight for freedom. Time travel, shape-shifting, and intergalactic conflict add unusual, provocative elements to this story. And yet, well-drawn characters; lively dialogue filled with gritty, regional dialect; vivid descriptions; and poignant reflections ground it in harsh reality. Older readers will find the blend of realism, escapism, and science fiction intriguing.–Gerry Larson, Durham School of the Arts, NC
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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I just couldn’t do it.  I did try.  But I’d sit down to read, chew through a bunch of pages, and then realize I’d only read about 8 pages.

I couldn’t buy into this book.  Sorry, School Library Journal.  I just don’t agree.  I DON’T “find the blend of realism, escapism, and science fiction intriguing.”  And I am a fan of speculative fiction.  This was just too out there, too far-fetched.  I made it to the half-way point before I gave up; it didn’t show signs of improving.

Further, it felt like Mosley was just trying too hard to deliver his message about freedom.  I do not like feeling like I’m being preached at.  The way I see it, you can send your message, or you can smash it and grind the broken pieces into my hand.  I’m going to enjoy one method a lot more than the other.

Sometimes you just have to walk away.

 

What I’m Reading #30: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair April 29, 2010

This book has been lurking on my bookshelf for a while, waiting for me to be in the right mood for it.  A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, aptly subtitled A Melodrama, falls on that fine line between middle-grade reading and young adult literature.  I picked it up after a synopsis on Amazon caught my eye.

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A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

Candlewick Press, 2006

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From School Library Journal

Grade 4-8–Maud’s life at an orphanage has been one of neglect and poverty. When the Hawthorne sisters appear out of nowhere and adopt the 11-year-old troublemaker, she vows to be obedient. Distracted by unfamiliar pleasures such as new clothes, ice cream, and indoor plumbing, she doesn’t worry too much about the sisters’ insistence that her presence in their home be kept hidden. Well cared for but bored, she finds a way to communicate with Muffet, a deaf serving woman, and the two develop a close relationship. Mysteries abound, and Maud soon discovers the family secret–the Hawthorne sisters make their living by conducting fraudulent séances and they need Maud to play the part of a girl’s ghost to deceive a grieving mother. Wanting to earn her guardians’ affections, Maud is drawn further and further into the scheme despite her growing qualms of conscience. Only after a betrayal and a tragedy does she finally find the loving home for which she longs. Filled with heavy atmosphere and suspense, this story re-creates life in early-20th-century New England and showcases the plight of orphans. Maud is a charismatic, three-dimensional character who is torn between doing the right thing and putting her own needs first. While much of the plot is predictable, particularly the ending, the book will find an audience with fans of gothic tales.–Melissa Moore, Union University Library, Jackson, TN
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Strengths: I really thought this book was charming.  It borders on Gothic; I might use it as a springboard to Gothic with the right reader.  Maud, the eleven-year-old heroine, is scrappy but compulsively likable, and her spirit is hard to contain.  Schlitz deepens Maud’s character with her sensitive portrayal of a child’s yearning for a loving home.  Maud is a little like Oliver Twist in that sense, particularly in her misfortune of falling in with a less-than-desirable crowd.  But I loved Oliver Twist, so the parallel doesn’t bother me. Maud is a little Oliver, and a little Anne Shirley too; she means well, but is sometimes led astray.

Potential Flaws: If melodrama isn’t your thing, you’ll probably not be too thrilled with this book.  It occasionally veers a bit sappy.  And the ending is, as School Library Journal says, predictable.  But these “flaws” have more to do with personal preference than with stylistic problems or construction issues.

My Rating:

A solid, charming story.  Not earth-shattering, emotionally, but a really enjoyable book.

 

What I’m Reading #28: Behind the Bedroom Wall April 16, 2010

The Second World War has always been fascinating to me.  I’m always looking for great YA Holocaust literature and fresh perspectives.  This particular book won the Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature in 1996. It’s definitely for middle-grade readers, and it’s a slim, simply written book, but sometimes that’s what I crave.

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Behind the Bedroom Wall by Laura E. Williams

Milkweed Editions, 2005 (Originally published in 1996)

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From Publishers Weekly

Melodrama substitutes for conflict in this heavy-handed novel set in Nazi Germany. At 13, Korinna Rehme is just like the other members of her girls’ youth group: besotted with the Fuhrer (“Hitler is the most wonderful man, Mother. Don’t you think so?”) and rabidly anti-Semitic. When she discovers that two Jews, a mother and young daughter, are hiding in her very own house, she is horrified at her parents’ calumny. As Korinna weighs the possibility of turning her parents in, her best friend, Rita, begins to grow suspicious and starts laying a deadly trap for the Rehmes and their clandestine guests. Neither subtlety nor insight plays a part in these proceedings: Williams doesn’t suggest the attractions of the Hitler youth groups or allow for the range of attitudes within these groups, described so persuasively in such memoirs as Ilse Koehn’s Mischling, Second Degree or Hans Peter Richter’s I Was There. Instead, the dilemmas faced by these characters come across to the reader as crystal-clear choices between good and evil. This type of simplification makes for bad history and a flat read. Ages 9-13.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Strengths: Clear, straightforward narrative style.  Some particularly likable characters (Korinna’s mother and her friend Eva) help the reader invest in the story.

Potential Flaws: This book really doesn’t have much WOW factor.  Although it’s written simply enough for struggling readers, I don’t know that I would recommend it even as an introduction to Holocaust literature; it seems flat and overly watered down.  The history of the Holocaust is complex and terrible, and I just don’t feel that this book does it justice.  It wasn’t a travesty, but it also lacked that special edge that beautifully written historical fiction can have.  When compared to titles like Zusak’s The Book Thief or Mal Peet’s Tamar, this title just doesn’t stand a chance.

My Rating:

I’m honestly not seeing the “prize-winning” aspects of this book.  Perhaps manuscripts were thin that year.  A lackluster presence in a world with MANY better options.

 

What I’m Reading #26: Paradise April 15, 2010

I’ve always loved good historical fiction.  Especially about time periods that I feel were a little neglected.  This book fit that criteria.

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Paradise by Joan Elizabeth Goodman

Graphia, 2002

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From Booklist

Gr. 7-12. Based on a true story, this is an unromanticized, feminist version of adventure tales such as Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson. When explorer Captain Jacques Cartier returns to France in 1536 with stories of great wealth in Canada, Sieur de Roberval sets sail for the Canadian wilderness. Among his passengers are his niece Marguerite; her serving lady, Damienne; and a stowaway, Marguerite’s great love, Pierre. During the voyage Pierre is discovered and cast into the sea and Marguerite and Damienne are abandoned on the Isle of Demons. Miraculously, Pierre lives, swimming ashore into Marguerite’s waiting arms. Thus begins the trio’s fight for survival. As the newcomers battle the mosquitoes (the true demons of the island) and the natives, they struggle to find food and shelter, and their paradise becomes a prison from which there is no escape. The author has fleshed out Marguerite’s story from several historical sources, altering it to be more hopeful but no less amazing. The book will be an invaluable addition to the literature about the colonization of the New World. Frances Bradburn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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I found this particularly intriguing since the heroine, Marguerite de la Rocque, appears to have truly existed, and the ordeal Goodman recounts is fairly accurate (save some details and creative license).

Strengths: This book was well written for the intended audience.  This could have been a very ponderous novel, but Goodman narrowed the focus enough and kept the tone appropriate for her readers.  This was enjoyable for me, since I really was looking for something a little lighter (not FUNNY, just lighter).  Goodman really captures Marguerite in every sense: emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  Pacing of the narrative is consistent and well-developed throughout, without notable gaps or lapses in detail.

Potential Flaws: Nothing really that weakens the impact of the book.  If you’re looking for gritty realism, you won’t really find much of it here, although it’s definitely not a rosy picture Goodman paints.  The historical note at the end was woefully short, however.  I really wanted to know MORE about Marguerite than what Goodman provides.  If she did indeed consult several historical sources, I would think there would be more to share…

My Rating:

Solid and entertaining.  A fast read, very suitable for middle-grade readers.

 

What I’m Reading #19: Resurrection Men March 20, 2010

This has been a particularly prolific reading week for me.  I attribute this to the first three movements of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which I sat through while waiting to sing during the fourth movement.  Hopefully my surreptitious reading wasn’t TOO obvious to the audience.  🙂

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Resurrection Men by T.K. Welsh

Dutton Juvenile, 2007

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

London, 1830s. Twelve-year-old Victor, an orphan, knows that life is dangerous, and death by disease or accident is common. But to Mr. Tipple and Mr. Biggs, these are streets teeming with possibility, where a child, once dead, is a commodity, and a “fresh subject” can fetch as much as nine guineas. In this dark underworld, Victor must uncover the identity of the ghoulish murderer who is at the heart of London’s furtive trade in human corpses.

T. K. Welsh, author of The Unresolved, spins an intricate and chilling story of greed, malevolence, and redemption based on the body-snatcher trials of 1831.

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First off, I love the cover.  VERY striking.  Also listed as author: J.G. Sandom.

Strengths: Welsh’s tale is a unique blend of Oliver Twist and Jack the Ripper.  Very Dickensian in many ways, but still very accessible to younger readers (more MATURE younger readers, however).  I was really intrigued by the subject matter; I didn’t know much about the body-snatcher trials.  It’s a page-turner.  It hits the ground running from the very beginning and the momentum is consistent.

Potential Flaws: The parallels between Victor’s experiences and those of Oliver Twist are perhaps a little too heavily drawn.  Readers looking for a unique read may find it a little predictable.

My Rating:

A very good read.  Highly recommended, especially for lovers of Dickens.

 

What I’m Reading #14: A Reliable Wife March 8, 2010

Since I love used bookstores and Paperbackswap, I often resist paying cover price for books.  This was one of those books I had to try really hard to wait for.

I was captivated by the cover when I saw it at Borders, and even more so by the synopsis on the back.

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A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Algonquin Books, 2010

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From Publishers Weekly

Set in 1907 Wisconsin, Goolrick’s fiction debut (after a memoir, The End of the World as We Know It) gets off to a slow, stylized start, but eventually generates some real suspense. When Catherine Land, who’s survived a traumatic early life by using her wits and sexuality as weapons, happens on a newspaper ad from a well-to-do businessman in need of a “reliable wife,” she invents a plan to benefit from his riches and his need. Her new husband, Ralph Truitt, discovers she’s deceived him the moment she arrives in his remote hometown. Driven by a complex mix of emotions and simple animal attraction, he marries her anyway. After the wedding, Catherine helps Ralph search for his estranged son and, despite growing misgivings, begins to poison him with small doses of arsenic. Ralph sickens but doesn’t die, and their story unfolds in ways neither they nor the reader expect. This darkly nuanced psychological tale builds to a strong and satisfying close. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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I fell in love with the cover.  And, surprise surprise, it was another book that had been published elsewhere first.  I’d actually have loved the Canadian cover even more.

How gorgeous would THAT have been?

But I digress.

Strengths: I devoured this book in a day.  It has everything: love, hatred, loathing, revenge, redemption, forgiveness, murder, debauchery, sex, betrayal… It’s deliciously naughty without turning into a bodice-ripping historical romance.  It’s definitely a juicy read, and despite Publishers Weekly’s assertion of the “slow, stylized start,”  I found it hit the ground running.  It has a Gothic twist, set in…Wisconsin, of all places, which is so unexpected I love it.   Catherine is secretive, devious, and beautifully flawed.  The narrative evolves with a ghastly inevitability, so much so that you can’t tear yourself away, knowing full well where it is heading.  Why do I find arsenic poisoning so fascinating?

Potential Flaws:

Really, I wasn’t able to pick anything that weakened the story.  It’s entertaining, but not a literary masterpiece.  But honestly, that’s not what I was looking for when I picked it up, anyway.

My Rating:

A very pleasant, decadent diversion.  Great for a lazy rainy afternoon.

 

What I’m Reading #12: The Outlander February 27, 2010

There’s something great about a beautifully simplistic cover.  It’s what made me pick up Gil Adamson’s The Outlander in the first place.  More historical fiction for me.

I think I need to branch out.

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The Outlander by Gil Adamson

Ecco; First Edtion ; First Printing edition (April 15, 2008)

Courtesy of Amazon.com:

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Set in 1903, Adamson’s compelling debut tells the wintry tale of 19-year-old Mary Boulton ([w]idowed by her own hand) and her frantic odyssey across Idaho and Montana. The details of Boulton’s sad past—an unhappy marriage, a dead child, crippling depression—slowly emerge as she reluctantly ventures into the mountains, struggling to put distance between herself and her two vicious brothers-in-law, who track her like prey in retaliation for her killing of their kin. Boulton’s journey and ultimate liberation—made all the more captivating by the delirium that runs in the recesses of her mind—speaks to the resilience of the female spirit in the early part of the last century. Lean prose, full-bodied characterization, memorable settings and scenes of hardship all lift this book above the pack. Already established as a writer of poetry (Ashland) and short stories (Help Me, Jacques Cousteau), Adamson also shines as novelist. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Tracked by bloodhounds and pursued by brutal-looking redheaded twins, a gently reared young woman flees over the plains of western Canada and into the mountains. She hears voices and sees events that may or may not be happening, causing her and other characters in this stylistically complex novel to question her sanity. The widow (as she is called in the first eight chapters of the book) is rescued by strangers who allow her free passage on a ferry or give her sanctuary and one who starts her back toward reality and sanity. Adamson cleverly integrates techniques of the adventure-suspense novel with a refined, often poetic style. She maintains suspense while portraying the wilderness of Canada’s far west and providing fine portraits of the people who lived in and were shaped by it. The slow unfolding of story and character coupled with lyrical descriptions of the terrain, an occasional touch of bizarre humor, and a multitude of well-chosen historical details will appeal to readers of literary writing as well as historical- fiction fans. –Ellen Loughran

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First, let me say this:  I had not the first clue exactly where the book took place, and from the two reviews listed above, neither did anyone else.  The book’s flap says “flees across the west.”  Publisher’s Weekly says “Idaho and Montana.”  Booklist says “The plains of western Canada.”  There are no recognizable city names or landmarks to indicate a particular region, so where PW and Booklist got their ideas, I don’t know, unless they were connected with the author and/or I seriously missed something.

Before I discuss strengths and flaws, I have to go into Adamson’s style in this book, since I can’t really say if this particular element is a strength or a flaw.  There is a deliberate (I think) remoteness in the narrative.  You’re never sure where she is or how much time has passed.  The author also refers to Mary (the protagonist) as “the widow” so frequently you almost forget what her name really is.  Again, I think this creates a very deliberate, disconnected way of connecting with the widow’s state of mind.  In that respect, I think it was actually a clever construction on Adamson’s part.

On a reader’s level, it irritated the hell out of me.  I had a few of those “WHAT??!?!?!?” moments as I was reading and desperately trying to do some sort of mental time calendaring in my head.  However, that may have been exactly Adamson’s intention, to bring the reader to the same feeling of remote disconnection as the characters in the book.

I have no idea.  I’m discombobulated by it.

Strengths: Adamson’s descriptive powers are excellent.  She depicts the widow’s flight vividly, without becoming too ponderously detailed.  She also creates extremely vivid, memorable characters, particularly Mary’s twin brothers-in-law and McEchern the dwarf.  If you regard the aforementioned remoteness as a strength, it’s wonderful, because she remains faithful to it throughout the book.

Potential Flaws: The primary difficulty a reader may have with this text is what I mentioned before: a purposeful creation of a sense of utter LOSTNESS (sorry to make up words, but it seems to fit in this case).  I am very torn about how I feel about the technique.  Am I irritated because I was completely taken in and buffaloed by it?  Or am I irritated because it weakens the story?  I was unsettled at the end, and I’m not entirely sure whose fault that is…

My Rating:

-ISH?

I don’t know.  I guess at the heart of it all, I saw a story that was intriguing, despite stylistic choices on the author’s part and my reaction to them.  If you can appreciate a book written in a less-than-straightforward style, this may be the book for you.  Ish.