Roots by Alex Haley9780440174646

publication date: 1976
pages: 688

Roots is a classic and for good reason.

The book followed an entire family’s ancestral line, from 17-year-old Kunta Kinte being snatched from a Gambian forest by slave traders in the late 1700s, to the author, Alex Haley, who was born into freedom in 1921. The first half of the book was devoted to Kunta Kinte’s life, as a young man in Africa and then in adulthood as a slave in America. The second half of the book focused on the descendants of Kinte, from Kinte’s daughter Kizzy, through several generations down to Haley.

My favorite part of the book was the first 150 pages, which described Kinte’s life as a member of the Mandinka tribe in Africa. Haley’s text captured the specific details of a culture very different from our modern-day Western culture, but he always considered the shared humanness that existed between Kinte’s Mandinka culture and our American one. For example, here was a passage describing when Kinte graduated from school:

One by one now, the arafang asked each graduate to stand. Finally came Kunta’s turn. “Kunta Kinte!” With all eyes upon him, Kunta felt the great pride of his family in the front row, even of his ancestors in the burying ground beyond the village – most especially of his beloved Grandma Yaisa. Standing up, he read aloud a verse from the Koran’s last page; finishing, he pressed it to his forehead and said, “Amen!” When the readings were done, the teacher shook each boy’s hand and announced loudly that as their eduction was complete, these boys were now of the third kafo, and everyone broke out into a loud cheering.

Although I loved reading about Kinte’s life in Africa, the most powerful part of the book was after his capture, when he was shackled in the slave transport ship from the African coast to America. In very concrete terms, Haley portrayed the horrific conditions of the months-long forced voyage that Kinte, and thousands of other Africans, took during the transatlantic crossing to slavery. Here was a passage:

Occasionally, down in the hold, Kunta would hear a little murmuring here and there, and he wondered what they could find to talk about. And what was the point? His Wolof shacklemate was gone, and death had taken some of those who had translated for the others. Besides, it took too much strength to talk any more. Each day Kunta felt a little worse, and it didn’t help to see what was happening to some of the other men. Their bowels had begun to drain out a mixture of clotted blood and thick, grayish-yellow, horribly foul-smelling mucus.

The ending of the book, with Haley investigating Kinte’s life in Africa, was also very emotionally moving, although I discovered in my research that there was controversy surrounding the truthfulness of Haley’s story.

Throughout the book, there was nothing very special or interesting about Haley’s writing. He didn’t create many memorable phrases or passages and there were timing and pace issues in the second half of the book. What made the book so memorable was Haley’s subject matter and his intricate characters.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book

Good Books and Good Wine
An Improbable Life

Zombies vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns edited ­­by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black9781416989530

publication date: 2010
pages: 415
ISBN: 978-1-4169-8953-0

This book was a compilation of short stories compiled by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black. The book pitted zombie stories against unicorn stories, with the zombie stories championed by Larabalestier and the unicorn stories promoted by Black. The stories were by several authors, including Garth Nix, Meg Cabot, and Cassandra Clare. Each story was prefaced with an argument or an exhortation by both Larbalestier and Black.

In my opinion, the zombie side won. Although, actually, as readers, we often all lost. Even the best story, a zombie story by Alaya Dawn Johnson, left much to be desired. I don’t know if the authors weren’t very interested in the theme, or couldn’t explore what they wanted to explore in a short story, but the stories were usually hurried and lacked solid characters. Also, the dialogue was often rushed or unrealistic. Additionally, if the story was action-oriented, the action frequently did not make sense. Here was an example from the story “Purity Test” by Naomi Novik:

Otto yowled as whatever had been boiling in the cauldron went pouring over his alligator-skin shoes and steaming over the floor. He whirled and came at them with the wand. “What did you do? How did you do that? I’m going to flay the skin off your bones –” Then he got close enough that Alison could pull the Princess Leia maneuver and throw the chains around his neck. She jerked them tight and dragged him in close as his face went purple and red, and she snatched the wand out of his hand.

That paragraph was typical of the abrupt, confusing action that occurred in many of the stories. Also ineffective were the editorial passages written by Larbalestier and Black before each story. At times, Larbalestier was downright mean! This was how she introduced the first zombie story:

Hallelujah! After wading through Garth Nix’s ye oldey unicorn muck you now get to read a proper zombie story. Since Holly [Black] bored you all . . . I thought I should fill you in . . . on the different kinds of zombies.

Although none of the stories or writing jumped out at me as anything spectacular, there were a few highlights. Libba Bray’s zombie story “Prom Night” was good, as was Kathleen Duey’s unicorn story “The Third Virgin.” Alayah Dawn Johnson’s story “Love Will Tear Us Apart” piqued my interest enough that I read one of her books. The zombie story “Bougainvillea,” by Carrie Ryan, was perhaps the most well-written. Ryan’s writing was haunting and lyrical:

A lizard slides over her toes, and she jumps, her fingernails raking against the tiles as she scrabbles to stay put. She feels like someone has planted a tree in her chest and then pressed fast-forward on the world, branches growing and twisting and pushing her apart from the inside. It’s hard to breathe in the thick night air, and she tastes the dampness of impending rain in the back of her throat.

Although Zombies vs. Unicorns contained some compelling tidbits, I would not recommend it unless you are enamored with its subject matter.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of this book:

Fantasy Book Review
Dear Author
Books: A True Story


Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld 9781400068326

publication date: 2016
pages: 488
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6832-6

In Eligible, Sittenfeld deliberately and explicitly created a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic, Pride & Prejudice. Basically, Sittenfeld took the Bennet family, along with the Lucases, the Collins, Fitzwilliam Darcy (of course!), and everyone else, and plopped them into Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2013.

If you’re not already familiar with the story, Pride & Prejudice centered around the Bennet family – including the five Bennet sisters: beautiful and sweet-tempered Jane, witty Liz, uncaring Mary, complacent Kitty, and Lydia, the baby. Living with the five sisters were their often out-of-touch parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The main plot complications of the story stemmed from Mrs. Bennet’s attempts to get all six of her girls married off, and moneyed.

Sittenfeld followed this main plot almost exactly, but she included many modern devices, like pre-marital sex and techies from Silicon Valley. Sittenfeld also did a satisfying job of carrying over the personality traits of each of her characters. However, she kept each of the characters modern and not as though they were throwbacks from an older time. For example, Jane was still sweet, but she wasn’t a pushover and she wasn’t just sitting around waiting to get married. Possibly the most effective character was Mr. Bennet. Sittenfeld aptly portrayed his dry, almost mean, humor and approach to life. Here was a perfect example:

[T]he door opened, and there appeared a male nurse in aqua-colored scrubs . . . “Fred!” The nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?”

Reading the nurses’ name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

Sittenfeld also perfectly kept intact a major theme of the original: that when we allow our pride and our prejudices to shadow our lives, we do ourselves a disservice.

Along with the modern retelling, Sittenfeld included several current issues, such as race, sexuality, the gender spectrum, and single motherhood. Sometimes Sittenfeld could get a little preachy on these subjects, but generally the book, especially the character of Liz, handled these topics well, in a Liz Lemon white-guilt sort of way.

The book also paid homage to Jane Austen in a subtler way: Sittenfeld captured something true about humanity through her characters, dialogue, and story. Here was a small example:

Liz said, “I guess I’m a Cincinnati opportunist. In New York, I play the wholesome-midwesterner card, but when I’m back here, I consider myself to be a chic outsider.” Even before Willie replied, Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care. Still, when he spoke, it was more disappointing than she’d expected.

He said, “That chili we had – I liked it okay, but I keep burping up the taste of it.”

I genuinely liked this book. It was cute, fun, and compelling. For those of you who liked Pride & Prejudice, I would recommend this just for the novelty of it. For anyone else, this is a contemporary story with vital characters and plenty of wit.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian
Entertainment Weekly

The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton9780316074315

publication date: 2013
pages: 830
ISBN: 978-0-361-07431-5

In this long, sprawling novel, Catton investigated luck, destiny, and love in 1860s New Zealand. Rather than relying on conventional narration and character development, Catton instead presented her plot using personal letters and story-telling techniques and jumping from present to past to future. She also focused on the heavens.  As explained by Catton at the outset:

For the planets have changed places against the wheeling canvas of the stars. . . . But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no long sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past.

Catton used her tangled writing to introduce a mystery: just as a stranger has arrived in town, a man is found dead, a woman found half-dead, and a missing man not found at all. This was all presented against the backdrop of a New Zealand mining town and, for some reason, the celestial and astrological arrangement of the time.

Catton’s writing was heavily stylized. She used a wordy, convoluted style, which brought to mind a learned bore from Jane Austen times. Here was an example from very early on in the book:

For the first time – perhaps because of his growing frustration, which served to focus his attention more squarely upon the scene at hand – [Mr.] Moody felt his interest begin to stir. The strange silence of the room was hardly testament to the kind of fraternity where all was shared and made easy . . . and moreover, [Mr.] Balfour had offered very little with respect to his own character and reputation in the town, by which intelligence Moody might be made to feel more assured of him!

Catton attempted to fit so much into this book. She had about 15 fully-realized characters, along with a love story, a supernatural mystery, painstakingly accurate star charts, and a meticulous writing technique.

For me, almost all of it fell flat. The characters were well-explained but uninteresting. The love story was pointless, and a little insulting. Anything supernatural was never explained; nor was anything to do with astrology. The meticulous writing was impressive, but only made the book seem daunting and overly-indulgent. When I closed the book, I had this thought: just because someone spent a lot of time crafting something does not make it good.

Catton obviously spent a lot of time writing this book, and I sure spent a lot of time reading it. But, that’s not enough of a reason for me to recommend it to you.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

New York Times
Book Page

Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine9781555976903

publication date: 2014
pages: 169
ISBN: 978-1-55597-690-3

Citizen was a collection of free form prose poetry and visual imagery that documented the black experience, especially when bounded by the white experience. The book was split into seven parts, which centered on loosely related topics. Generally, these topics were: personal experiences of racism, Serena Williams’s experience as a powerful black female tennis player, and violence against black people in the news.

The most effective parts for me were Rankine’s depictions of the subtle and relentless racism encountered by black Americans in everyday life. The pieces were written in second person and were usually vivid and intimate. Here was an example:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

Here was another very short passage:

And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.

The descriptions of the violence against black people were also effective, although they were more confusing and less striking than the more intimate verses. However, the pieces about Serena Williams really fell flat for me; maybe because they weren’t written from Serena’s perspective but instead from a spectator’s perspective.

The book also contained images of artworks. Some of these were more potent or useful than others. The cover image was probably the most powerful: it was a stark black sweatshirt hood.

The book captured aspects of life that many Americans don’t have cause to confront with very often. Although it was uneven, when it worked it really worked.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New Yorker
The Guardian

Gliese 581

Gliese 581: The Departure by Christine Shuck51r-xcqauvl-_sy346_

publication date: 2016
pages: 183

This SF novel was set in a world 100 years in the future: a world where interstellar space travel was possible and humans colonized the Moon and Mars to deal with crowding on Earth. The book focused on three main plots: a grotesque and devastating plague on Earth, a one-way manned space mission to star system Gliese 581 for the purpose of colonization, and a mysterious, violent incident on board the Gliese 581 spaceship that threatened the entire crew.

One of the best parts of the book was the characters. Shuck introduced varied and multifaceted characters, from a bitter grandmother, to a gay Chinese man with a conservative family, to a medical examiner with a penchant for pedophilia.

The book also created good mystery and suspense. Shuck used flashbacks to weave the three story lines together, which was especially effective when the frantic and tense pace of one story line was interrupted by a more leisurely, but informative, plot point. Shuck also developed a good mystery surrounding the violence on the Gliese 581 spaceship. I found myself searching for clues about the identity and motive of the perpetrator.

Also effective was Shuck’s descriptions of the plague on Earth. She did not shy from graphically depicting what was happening to the human body and mind as the virus made its way through the victim. The passages certainly set me off my lunch.

However, there were a lot of problems with the book. It was unpolished, with a lot of small errors. There were, for example, missing pronouns, rough tense changes, and haphazard comma usage. This all made for garbled or confusing writing, at times. There were also some inconsistencies. Like sometimes people would use paper all the time and other times characters were made fun of for even having paper and not a computer. Or like one character who was described as being a manipulative philanderer, but whenever we witnessed him with a woman he was nothing but kind and unpresumptuous.

Shuck’s writing could also be very preachy. The entire plot seemed crafted to get us to eat less. She also had an obvious opinion about the current agricultural economy:

EcoNu’s test pigs were showing shockingly low reproductive rates. This didn’t sit well with Edith. Nor did the smug speculation that this was a winning strategy. It smacked too much of Monsanto’s death grip on the corn economy early in the century.

Or there was this rant, which came out of nowhere:

Shortly before The Collapse, there had been strong militarization of police in and around major cities. This was done primarily under the guise of the War on Drugs, something that had been abandoned when the country collapsed into civil war, and later not taken up again due to its deeply unpopular legacy. The War on Drugs was now akin to human rights violations in American cultural memory.

These rants and garbled writing hindered an imaginative SF book with complex characters and a serviceable plot:

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Poets of the Dead Society

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness9780062415639

publication date: 2015
pages: 317
ISBN: 978-0-06-240316-2

After reading Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series a few years ago, I’ve been casually following him as an author. When I saw his newish book The Rest of Us Just Live Here, I was excited to pick it up. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to the expectations I had after Chaos Walking.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here followed Mikey, a normal guy who just wanted to graduate high school with his friends and the love of his life. The book explicitly contrasted Mikey and his group with the “indie kids” – you know the ones: they’re always too cool for prom or trendy clothes and they always find trouble. Usually the trouble came in the form of vampires, but sometimes also zombies or spirits or the like. This time the trouble came in the form of “the Immortals.” Every chapter of the book started with a description of what was happening with the indie kids as Mikey was living his unremarkable life. For example:

Chapter the Third, in which indie kid Finn’s body is discovered; Satchel – who once dated Finn – asks Dylan and a second indie kid also called Finn to skip school and help her talk to her alcoholic uncle, who is the lead police officer investigating the death; meanwhile, the Messenger, inside a new Vessel, is already among them, preparing the way for the arrival of the Immortals.

I thought this was a fun plot device. As the Bella Swans and the Harry Potters of the world go around fighting evil and their demons, we shouldn’t forget the ordinary people. As the title of the book made clear: the rest of us just live here. However, the book did not follow its own conceit. Instead of following a group of kids who were only tangentially or passively related to the indie kids’ action, Ness created characters that consistently were in the thick of things. It’s almost as though they were “indie kids” themselves.

Everything about this book was OK. The plot was fine, the characters were fine, the writing was fine, and the ending was fine. I laughed a few times but I also rolled my eyes a lot, in frustration or derision. The characters were supposed to be average, but in actuality one was part-god, one had a state senator as a parent, and most were involved in a love quadrangle. All of them were these “indie kids” that Ness had tried to ignore.

I kept comparing it to Rainbow Rowell, and especially Carry On. Carry On and The Rest of Us Just Live Here were published around the same time but, unfortunately, Rowell did a better job. She crafted a better anti-Chosen One story, with better characters and a better message. She even had better parenthetical asides!

If you liked Chaos Walking, you won’t necessarily like this book – it was very different. However, if you like contemporary YA you’ll probably like this just fine.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

The Guardian
Teen Librarian Tool Box
New York Times