Taduno’s Song

Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun9781101871454

publication date: 2016
pages: 234
ISBN: 9781101871454

In this slim novel, Odafe Atogun presented a surreal Nigeria. One in which political prisoners send letters without anything leaving their jail cell, guitars have the power to condemn someone to death, and the dictatorial Nigerian president declares all forms of music to be illegal. Taduno’s Song followed singer-in-exile Taduno as he attempted to rescue his girlfriend from prison in Lagos, Nigeria. Taduno’s main weapon was his music. He used it to convince, to calm, and to protest. His crusade was hampered, however, by the fact that no one, including his family and friends, remembered who he was once he returned from exile.

The book used absurdist and magical realist themes and story lines. When Taduno was in exile, all the houses at the town he was exiled to were empty and open for him to use. When a music producer’s Afro was cut off he seemingly lost all his power. The entire story was an epic battle for Taduno’s music, which was used to accomplish almost anything. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to read these off-kilter plot points as important to the story or as symbols for something else.

Because the book included a lot of absurd or non-logical events, places, and characters, it was difficult for me to care about the plot. I often wondered, when does something move from “magical realism,” to “nonsensical?” If anyone might do anything at any time, because there were no rules, why would I care about these particular people? The characters were also often indistinguishable from each other. There was the evil President and the pure and good girlfriend of Taduno, but beyond that, the dialogue could have been spoken by anyone.

The book did explore compelling themes. A main theme was the capacity of the work-a-day person to forget atrocities that happened in the recent past or were currently happening. After Taduno was exiled for making music, the people of his country literally were unable to recall anything about him. Another theme was the ability of art to make a real difference in people’s lives, by fighting the government or creating unity among a people.

Atogun also had flashes of brilliance regarding corruption and power. For example, this exchange, between Taduno and the President, after the President had him arrested for playing guitar in the street:

‘You believe my order was unjustified?’
‘Yes. It violates my right to make public music.’
‘You do not have rights. No one in this country has rights. This is not a civilian regime, this is a military regime, see?’ The President smiled triumphantly.
‘Well, I want my rights. Every citizen of this country wants their rights.’
The President shook his head in astonishment, unable to understand why anybody wanted rights under a military regime. He laughed in amusement.

Although Taduno’s Song had some interesting or effective elements, generally the nonexistent characters, wacky plot, and inconstant writing made the book dull to read.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Book Page
Read in Colour blog
Brittle Paper

Dead Until Dark

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris9780441019335

publication date: 2001
pages: 312
ISBN: 978-0-441-01933-5

Dead Until Dark was the first book of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which were the basis for the HBO show True Blood. I haven’t seen True Blood, so I don’t know how close the show reproduced the book. Dead Until Dark introduced Sookie Stackhouse, a dotty, Louisiana waitress who had a few secrets tucked away. First, she could read minds and second, she wanted to meet a vampire. Lucky for Sookie, the world created by Harris in Dead Until Dark conveniently included vampires – a subset of humans who had recently come out from the collective coffin a few years before we met Sookie at Merlotte’s bar.

The book was a mashup of genres: mystery, romance, fantasy, gothic, humor. Unfortunately, Harris didn’t represent any given genre very competently, although the combination did create a generally compelling story. It was a quick read, and I was intrigued enough, although I couldn’t quite pinpoint why.

The book was supposed to be quirky and funny. Sometimes that worked, like when Harris named the fictional local gas station the “Grabbit Kwik.” Often, it did not work, as in this description of a person whose mind Sookie was attempting to read:

I couldn’t hear his thoughts as clearly as I could other people’s. I’d had waves of impressions of how he was feeling, but not thoughts. More like wearing a mood ring than getting a fax.

The book was also supposed to be sexy. The sexiness, which was often odd and blunt, surprisingly worked for me. One of the first things that a vampire said to Sookie, after she surrounded her neck and arms with anti-vampire metal chains because she didn’t trust him not to bite her, was:

“But there’s a juicy artery in your groin,” he said after a pause to regroup, his voice as slithery as a snake on a slide.

Although reading Dead Until Dark was usually painless and uncomplicated, the book left much to be desired. The dialogue was pretty bad. There was this scene, where a character was trying to convince Sookie that she wouldn’t be able to read his mind:

[He said, “Would that be] relaxing to you?”
“Oh, yes.” I meant it from my heart.
“Can you hear me, Sookie?”
“I don’t want to try!” I said hastily. . . . “I’ll have to quit if I read your mind, Sam! I like you, I like it here.”

Also, the action was often confusing and underwhelming. And, although Harris peppered the book with some passages that reminded the reader that the book was set in the South, generally, Harris’s lack of effective description seemed like a waste of the rich Southern setting.

Although the book wasn’t terrible, it didn’t intrigue me enough to induce me to read the other books in the series or to watch the TV show.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Russ Allbery’s reviews
TechRepublic
Pretty Little Memoirs

Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia

Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia by Dougald JW O’Reilly9780759102798

publication date: 2007
pages: 235
ISBN: 978-0-7591-0278-1

I picked this book up because I was interested in the Pyu people of modern-day Myanmar. In Laura Bush’s memoir, which I reviewed, she discussed how the Pyu were a nonviolent people who created a good template for living. I had never heard of the Pyu and was intrigued by her description. I searched Wikipedia but didn’t find much information. Wanting to find out more about the Pyu, I found the only book at my local library that discussed the Pyu in any detail: Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia.

This book read like an expanded dissertation paper. It was dry and filled with quotes from other sources. The author didn’t attempt much interpretative writing or analysis. Also, the discussion was filled with words and terms that I wasn’t familiar with, which the author didn’t define and couldn’t be understood from the context. For example, these sentences, from a short discussion of the climate of the region:

At the higher elevations the increased rainfall changes the character of the forest, creating a canopy where little sunlight penetrates to ground level. Here the arboreal animals dominate the faunal spectrum.

Honestly, I kinda liked the phrase “the faunal spectrum” – it had a quirkiness; but it seemed flashy and redundant in this context.

Perhaps ironically, O’Reilly’s discussion of the Pyu did not mention any of the things mentioned by Bush: the pacifist culture that might herald a better way of life. So, either Bush – and others – was mistaken, or O’Reilly didn’t think that aspect of the Pyu was important enough to mention. Granted, O’Reilly didn’t discuss much of the culture or daily life of the Pyu people, whether nonviolent or not.

The book included some interesting tidbits. For example, Pyu people built their houses out of lychee and decorated their teeth with gold rosettes. However, the interesting parts were rarely discussed in any detail or even strung together to form a compelling picture of a people. As I was reading, I wished the whole thing was linked like an online article so I could learn more. For example, how did they use the lychee? Did they dry it? Is lychee a tree? I’d heard of it, but only as a fruit.

The book was well-researched and hopefully accurate. I would say I was simply not the audience. Academics looking to write a paper or thesis on this topic will perhaps cite this book, although I would not recommend it for reading, or even to gain a better understanding of these older cultures.

3/6: more good than bad

No other book reviews as such, although people have reviewed the book on Amazon and Good Reads:

Amazon
Good Reads

The Book of Speculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler9781250055637

publication date: 2015
pages: 339
ISBN: 978-1-250-05480-7

The Book of Speculation alternated between two linked story lines. The first, set in modern day, told the story of Simon Watson, a down-on-his-luck research librarian. Simon was desperately trying to hold on to the coastal house his family grew up in. With a diminishing career, a suicidal mother, a negligent father, and a roving sister who visited only once every few years, Simon felt the house was the only earthly thing he had to cling to. That changed when he was mysteriously sent an old ledger manuscript that contained his grandmother’s name and described an even older circus troupe, and when his sister arrived home, taking a break from her own life as a traveling circus performer.

The circus ledger detailed the second story line, set in the 1780s, about a traveling group of circus performers. That story focused on Amos, a mute man who became apprenticed to a fortune-teller and dreamed of finding and keeping love. One day, love fell into his lap in the form of Evangeline, a young woman with a gift for the water who was marketed by the circus as a mermaid.

The Book of Speculation was saturated with themes and motifs. There was water, of course, and drowning. Tarot cards and symbols. There were also themes of home, obsession, family, and the past as shackles. There were no subtle metaphors in Speculation: for example, Simon’s house, a relic of his failed family, literally hurt his leg and hampered his ability to walk away when one of the floorboards broke and swallowed him whole.

All these various plots, and themes, and characters, and fantastical elements – mermaids, circuses, tarot cards – fell flat for me. I didn’t care too much about Simon, which meant I didn’t care too much about the people in his constant dramas. Also, so many things seemed just a little bit off. I kept asking myself, “Does that make sense?” “Would someone do that?” “Do they really use lathes to angle doors?” (As far as I could tell – no.) For example, here was a passage from Simon’s narrative that rang false:

Alice cracks the door. Swollen eyes, a red nose, face bruised from crying.

Frank [had already] told her everything. I’m sorry and wish we’d never come. The worst is she’s a pretty crier and learning that is awful.

Learning she was a pretty crier was really the worst part about that situation? It wasn’t what Alice was crying about or what Frank told her or why you’d confront a grieving woman in the first place? It was that her face still looked pretty with tears on it?

Although the plots and characters often fizzled, Swyler imbued the book with vivid and effective imagery. As an example of writing that left an indelible image in my mind, here was a passage of Simon reading to his newly-returned sister, Enola:

[The story] is from the Bolokhovskis. She wants me to read Eglė. I do. Slowly, the way Mom used to, unraveling the story of the farmer’s daughter who would become Queen of the Serpents, and her children who were turned into trembling trees. All folktales have a price. Enola listens silently, pressing her forehead to my shoulder, letting me remember her.

The book was a steady read, so if any of the themes above intrigue you, you might want to pick this book up. However, I don’t have anything particular to recommend about it, either.

3/6: more good that bad

other reviews:

Bits & Books
npr
The Book Reporter

Drag Teen

Drag Teen by Jeffery Self9780545829939

publication date: 2016
pages: 261
ISBN: 978-0-545-82993-9

This YA book followed JT and his friends Heather and Seth from Florida to New York as they entered JT in a drag queen competition to boost his confidence and win a college scholarship. I’m glad this book exists, because there should be books about people pursuing drag for fun and for life. However, this particular book was not great.

The writing was very uneven. The narrator skipped from one topic to the next and any emotional changes were generally jarring and confusing. Also, the author assumed that just because he described something in a certain way, then that thing made sense. Here’s an example, when JT’s best friend was introduced:

Heather was just as much of a mess as me. Which is why our friendship worked so well. We were the kind of outcasts they don’t make teen movies about. Heather was funny, biting, sarcastic, and had a variety of beautiful features, but none of them really went together, and her weight problems were even worse than mine, which meant she turned to her big personality to distract the judgmental eyes of our peers.

That paragraph was all over the place. And, those two sound like exactly the folks people would make teen movies about. A gay teen and his funny, overweight best friend? I think 60% of teen movies post-She’s All That have that combo in there.

Generally, the humor did not work. However, there were a few parts that I thought were funny. This line was one of my favorites:

We all awkwardly chuckled along with her, the way people do in action movies when the bad guy makes a lame joke and laughs at it while holding a weapon.

I also liked how buoyant and passionate the writing was. The author really loved his topic and his characters. Although a lot of the characters in the book were just props for JT or plot pieces, JT’s boyfriend and best friend, Seth and Heather, were well-developed characters with their own interesting back stories and lives.

This book had a lot going for it, including good main characters and convincing settings and motivations, but unfortunately the plot and writing were flawed.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Twirling Book Princess
Portland Book Review
Edge Media Network

Dark Lover

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider9780374282394

publication date: 2003
pages: 423
ISBN: 0-374-28239-0

I picked this book up as I was wandering through the library. The title caught my eye because it was also the name of the first book of a romance series I sometimes read called The Black Dagger Brotherhood. When I started the book, I knew almost nothing about Rudolph Valentino and the era of silent movies.

Rudolph Valentino was an Italian man born in 1895. He moved to New York City when he was 18, where he became a dancer and an actor in bit parts. His first big break was in 1921 as the lead in the successful silent movie The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. That role led to many more parts and to him being a new kind of sex symbol: the dark and mysterious, maybe even a little evil, lover. He had a short and powerful career and died at the age of 31 of stomach ulcers.

Dark Lover was obviously well-researched. Leider described Valentino’s life in great detail and included several passages about the biographies of the people closest to him, including his immediate family and his wives and friends. Leider also uncovered facts about Valentino’s life that had been forgotten or had been wrongly presented in other accounts of Valentino.

Although Leider’s writing did not sparkle with wit or originality, she did present a fun tone throughout the book, and an undeniable passion for the subject. Here was her description of the negative implication of Valentino dancing for money when he first arrived in New York:

American opinion found nothing strenuous in dancing done by men, whether in ballets or ballrooms. [Russian male dancer] Nijinsky, who appeared in New York in 1916 with the Ballets Russes, was slammed in the press for being effete. To move with graceful insinuation, wear citified evening clothes, show off, and make a woman sigh as you swept her across the floor – sorry, it just wouldn’t do, especially if the woman was picking up the tab. The [dancer’s] slicked-back hair became a symbol of what made him suspect. Instead of being rugged and leathery like a 100 percent American, his oiled hair and manner made him “smooth” and slithery, like the fabled snake in the grass.

The book also contained three different sets of photographs. Leider found some wonderful pictures of Valentino, including a photo of a shirtless Valentino wearing skintight goatskin pants and playing a flute.

For me, the book was about one hundred pages too long. Leider included a lot of detail throughout the book, from her descriptions of Valentino’s clothes and purchases to the summaries of his movies. Someone with more than a passing interest in Valentino’s life presumably would have found the content more engaging. To me, the book seemed repetitive at times and would drag on. Leider never elevated Valentino’s story to be more than just a recounting of facts.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

The Guardian
London Review Of Books
Curled Up With a Good Book

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 Larbalestier 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