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Tag Archives: women author

The Year They Burned The Books

The Year They Burned The BooksUnknown

by: Nancy Garden

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, NY  1999

ISBN: 0-374-38667-6

I found this to be a surprisingly emotional novel.  It’s a high school drama seeped in political discourse.  The main characters are the student staff of the school paper.  These are kids who believe what they’ve been taught about journalism and freedom of the press. When local conservative Christians rise up to moderate the content of the school paper these students fight for their journalistic integrity.

I suspect this novel was written specifically because Nancy Garden had a previous book banned from school libraries.  The town meeting scene where they debate maintaining morality for the children could have been taken directly from a transcript.  This story manages to touch just about every imaginable red button topic that has caused books to be banned.

Having said that, I was impressed (and marginally disappointed) with where Garden drew her lines.  There is no explicit teen sex.  However, the sex education curriculum and the availability of free condoms in the high school nurses office make the issue of teen sex a large theme.  Several of the main characters are gay, and in various stages of acceptance.  Teen suicide is touched on, but we do not lose any of the characters in the book.  Book burning happens, but the people having the bonfire used books they’d purchased, not the library books they represented.

One of the issues is that an opinion piece in the paper should not have to present both sides of the conflict.  It’s an opinion, not the news.  The students actually work very hard to find contradictory opinions and even their articles nod at some validity in their oppositions viewpoints.  This book as a whole tries to do the same.

All of the characters, even the self righteous ones, are drawn with some depth.  Everyone is portrayed as trying to do the best they can for what they believe to be right.  The gay characters are harassed and struggle internally with their identities.  They are not “out loud and proud” and they are very aware of the risks of simply allowing themselves to be who they are.

This really is a teen driven story.  The adult characters have weight and impact, but it is the teens who are affected.  I would highly recommend this book as support for kids questioning their own identities.  I would also recommend this book to people who are friends and parents of those kids.

 

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Sunshine

Sunshinesunshine

by: Robin McKinley

The Berkley Publishing Group, New York, NY 2003

ISBN: 0-425-19178-8

 

I really enjoyed this book.  I have to agree with Neil Gaiman who said, “Pretty much perfect.”  I’ve read several of Robin McKinley’s retellings of fairy tales.  This is not one of them.  Many of the reviews you read will reference Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t buy it.  This tale stands alone (and begs to become a series, but the author says no.)

The main character, Sunshine, is a baker.  That by itself is enough to draw me in.  My daughter is a baker and she claims it’s from helping me in the kitchen.  Bakers are alchemists, transformers.  They turn slurry into dough.  They combine savory and sweet into something that sends our senses reeling.  And it seems that Sunshine is all that and more.

This is a world that humans “share” with the big three:  Weres, Demons, and Vampires.  The weres (and apparently you can be a were anything) are not such a problem.  It’s a once a month thing and there’s a drug for that.  Demons are rarely able to pass as human and when they do it’s because that’s what they want to be.  Vampires are a problem.

I am not big on vampire fiction.  I’m not enamored by the notion of romancing the undead.  I didn’t even get on the Buffy bandwagon until years after it aired and even more years after it was on DVD.  These vampires are spot on.

Robin McKinley manages to write with a sense of humor, a nod to fandom, and an ability to engage all of the senses.  When she describes being in the same space as a vampire you can feel your skin crawl along with the narrative.  She includes those senses of knowing without knowing how you know.

She also writes, not just the horror, but the impact of the horror.  Her characters don’t confront the monsters, wipe of the sword and prepare to fight another day.  They suffer real trauma.  Their relationships are impacted by their experiences.  Shared experiences build relationships and experiences that can’t be shared create wedges.

There is a lot of grey in Sunshine’s world.  There are people she knows who probably should be “registered” as supernatural, but aren’t.  There are law enforcement agents that are friends because of their stories, but who may not be trusted with secrets.  There are family connections that no one in the family will talk about, and plenty of speculation about what that might mean.

This is an engaging story.  A well crafted fantasy romp.  It might also be an allegory for the world we live in now.  There are no firm answers about where the tale will lead from here.  It really does beg for a sequel.  It also really stands very strongly on its own.

 

 

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Cooking for Picasso

Cooking for Picassopicasso

by: Camille Aubray

Ballantine Books, New York, NY  2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-17765-1

 

This book was delightful, like reading a painting.  The colors, textures, and tastes both in the food and the setting were rich and satisfying.  The story itself reads like the memoir of someone exploring their family history.  It was so compelling I really wanted it to be true.

This is historical fiction at it’s best.  The historical characters are brought to life in a way that advances our appreciation, knowledge and understanding of their work and place in history.  It humanizes them and makes them three-dimensional, people rather than characters. Given that the predominant historical character in this novel is Picasso, humanizing him is a challenge.

Picasso is central to the story, but he actually only appears in a few scenes.  When he does he is given credibility in his character and his actions by his association with his work.  The period of interacting with the artist is right after he has painted his Minotaur series.  It is common, in art history, to see an artists work as autobiographical and here Picasso is clearly cast as his minotaur.

Describing Picasso’s appearance is easy, but conveying the sensual appeal of this temperamental bull of a man is harder.  In this case the attraction was not because of his wealth or notoriety.  Although he opened the door for escape from a small, controlled life, he wasn’t ever going to be the door.  His appeal, his animal magnetism, was simply a part of who he was and it is very much a part of this book.  His presence is persistent even when he is nowhere near the scene.  The age difference wasn’t appalling because of the period and because clearly the grandmother was (maybe for the first time in her life) making her own choices.  It’s an “eye’s wide open” relationship.

The art that is referenced also helps to build the credibility of this fiction.  The grandmother who cooked for Picasso is cast as the figure in a work where the identity of the model is still debated.  The family heirloom that makes an appearance in a rare Picasso still life, painted in the same period, allows the granddaughter to truly believe the family legend.  The historical novel construction, where everything is fantasy except the things that are historical is also the basis of this story.

The granddaughter/protagonist is given, in secret, her grandmother’s recipe book.  The mother offers “from when she cooked for Picasso”.  There is nothing indicating Picasso specifically in the notes.  Everything is coded with initials.  The family dynamic is toxic and with the sudden death of the stepfather the granddaughter is cut off from her mother.  She can not ask for any more clues or information about the grandmother’s story.  It’s all a little mythic.

She finds her mother has signed up for a cooking class, in France, and suspects that her mother intended to explore the relationship between the grandmother and Picasso.  The granddaughter undertakes the journey and search for herself and finds a bit of her family story and a lot of her own.  When she runs across a “coincidence” where the actual history matches up with the family story her faith in the story builds.

Much of the narrative is actually written in the grandmother’s time and point of view.  We get a sense of the family history as it happened.  We begin to understand how the family dynamics became so toxic.  Art, whether it be paining, or pottery, or cooking, appears again and again as the key to salvation of the soul.

I did google the paintings as they were referenced to add a visual dimension to the storytelling.  Picasso is so stylistically indescribable, and yet I was pretty sure I recognized the paintings from the descriptions in the tale.  I wasn’t familiar with the series of paintings that, in this story, are the portraits of the grandmother.  Reading her reaction to the paintings and then viewing them for myself added both understanding and appreciation of the artist’s eye that becomes a family trait.

Although it is not necessary, I do recommend at some point in reading the book to spend some time viewing Picasso’s work.  This period in particular, where he “disappeared”, is a shift for him as well.  The novel allows us to speculate that the relationship with Picasso had an impact, not only on the family in the story, but also on the great artist himself.

 

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Hard to Die

Hard to Dieunknown

by: Andra Watkins

Word Hermit Press LLC   Charleston, SC

ISBN:13978-0-9908593-7-6

 

I tagged this book with “historical fiction” because the characters are certainly historical.   The primary character is Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Aaron Burr (remembered primarily for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel).   Theodosia died under “mysterious circumstances” and therefore has found herself in Andra Watkins Afterlife series.

Those whose deaths are unresolved find themselves in Nowhere.  They have limited memories of the circumstances of their deaths, and no memories of their time in Nowhere.  Each has a “conductor” who charges them to help a living person make a better choice in their lives.  The dead have 13 chances to find resolution or they will be trapped forever in this in between place.

Theodosia’s life was filled with political intrigue.  Her father was tried for treason.  Her godfather was probably a spy.  She herself was highly educated and involved with many of the movers and shakers of her time.  (She makes an appearance in the musical Hamilton.)  It is not a surprise that her Afterlife story would also be filled with spies, treason, and political intrigue.

Set in the Hudson River Valley near West Point, the geography and legendary history of the area also play a role in the story.  The scenes in New York City revolve around Grand Central Station and its starry skied ceiling.  Theodosia is having her past life in 1950.  Her mission is to help one of the West Point cadets make a good choice towards a better life.

Unfortunately for Theo,  Nowhere is hardly a solitary place.  There are several other characters from Theodosia’s life who are also struggling with resolving their deaths.  The interplay between what has past and what is happening in the story, still our history, adds to the intrigue and suspense.

Andra’s novels bring historical characters into three dimensions. She makes her characters come to life and places them in settings that contribute to the story telling. Hard to Die grabs the reader from the start and hangs on tightly through all the twists and turns. I’m not sure I like Andra’s Theodosia, but I found her fascinating. Looking forward to more Nowhere novels.

 

Also by Andra Watkins:

toliveforever

 

 

 

 

To Life Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis   This is Andra’s first novel and the first in the Afterlife series.  Meriwether Lewis is quite the character and the harrowing run towards the place of his death along the Natchez Trace adds color and history to the story.

notwithoutmyfather

Not Without My Father   A memoir of her journey as she walked the Natchez Trace, her father along as her back-up and support.

natcheztrace

Natchez Trace: Tracks in Time   The photo journal of Andra’s walk

 

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Luna

Lunaluna

by: Julie Anne Peters

Little Brown and Company  NY, NY 2004

ISBN: 978-0-316-00127-3

 

Luna is a typical coming of age story.  It is a story of siblings in their teens each struggling to find who they are and each looking to move into a world outside their disfunctional family.  These siblings understand each other in ways no one else can.  Still, they are teens and neither is aware of the damage their own struggle is doing to their sibling.

Luna is an LGBTQ novel.  It is the story of a teen struggling with gender identity.  It is the story of how hard it is to find yourself in a world that expects you to be something you simply can not be.  It is about finding the strength and courage to be honest with the world about who you really are.

Luna is an outsiders tale.  There are no surprises here.  The transgender dynamic and sibling relationship is established in the first chapter.  The point of view character is the sister of the transgendered teen.  She is the protector, the peacemaker, the refuge for her sibling.  The story is about her struggle.  She accepts her sibling, but doesn’t believe anyone else will.  She is an outsider because she must stand by an outsider, be impacted by an outsider.

The author is very free with her use of gender pronouns.  The transgender character is identified as both he and she by the sister.  Some of the gender use is “situational”.  She uses the gender for her sibling that everyone expects.  Some of the gender use is “role based”.  She uses the gender based on how her sibling is actively presenting.  Some of the gender use is simply the sister coming to terms with the reality of who her sibling really is.

This is a sweet and honest look at some of the emotional struggles family members may have with a transgendered sibling.  Because of my exposure to the disability community I am very much aware that siblings and sibling’s emotions can get short changed when families are confronted with a “real” problem.  This story allows the sister’s experiences to be “real” as well.

On the other hand, it doesn’t offer much of a lifeline to the point of view of the transgendered youth.  There is definitely a sense of “It gets better”.   There is a clear representation of the repression of role playing and the freedom to be who you are. But for all of the LGTBQ content, this is not an LGTBQ story.  It is a sibling story.

I really do recommend this book.  It’s a point of view that isn’t well represented in the literature.   This book would be welcomed by the sibling of any “outsider”.  I also think that it’s a generally LGTBQ positive rendering of a difficult family story.

This book is about gender, not about sexuality.  There is some banter about being gay.  The name calling is teen typical (if inappropriate, it still underlines character and it’s interesting that as supportive of the sister is of trans/queer she doesn’t hesitate to call a teacher retarded).   There is teen attraction, but nothing beyond a kiss.   I would say that makes this book very appropriate for pre-teens interested in the topic.

 

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